Grizzlies on track for return to North Cascades

North Cascades meadow
Photo: Matt Hart
The North Cascades Ecosystem features expansive wilderness areas that were once home to a thriving grizzly bear population, and may be again.

Federal agencies announce reintroduction plan, with Bitterroot scoping also underway

By Kayla Heinze, Communications & Outreach Coordinator

The last time biologists confirmed a grizzly bear’s presence in the North Cascades Ecosystem it was 1996 and I was not yet born. Now, after nearly 30 years, the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have announced they will actively restore a population of grizzlies to this designated recovery zone. This historic moment comes as the review process for potential grizzly reintroduction to the Bitterroot Ecosystem begins, with agency officials currently drafting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessing different options for recovery.

Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones mapBoth the North Cascades and Bitterroots are designated grizzly recovery zones without a resident grizzly population. Both feature expansive wilderness areas that provide ample habitat for grizzlies. And the bears give back—their presence on the landscape supports healthy plant communities and balances other wildlife populations.

As the only ecosystem outside of the Northern Rockies designated for grizzly recovery, Vital Ground wrote in a public comment that the North Cascades Ecosystem “offers a singular and irreplaceable opportunity to return the grizzly as a vital link in the nation’s wildlife heritage.”

People once killed and eradicated grizzlies from the North Cascades, and now people are going to bring them back. Agency officials plan to transfer three to seven grizzlies into the ecosystem from existing populations each year until an initial population of 25 individuals is established. Beyond that, additional translocations will be considered to supplement the population, ultimately aiming for 200 individuals.

For those with deep roots among these ancient cedar forests and rushing glacial rivers, the return of bears also enables a return to relationship. “​​The tribe’s history, culture and identity is so intertwined with Grizzly Bears and the [North Cascades Ecosystem] that it is impossible to separate them,” Marilyn Scott, vice chair of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe wrote.

Brown bear with salmon
In Alaska and British Columbia, bears feeding on salmon plays a crucial ecological role in nutrient distribution across the forest landscape. That cycle could return to the North Cascades along with grizzlies.

Support is not ubiquitous, however. Some tribes in the area that rely heavily on vulnerable salmon populations, as well as recreationists and ranchers, are concerned about the impact of grizzlies on their ways of life. Considering over 12,000 public comments, the NPS and USFWS decided to designate the North Cascades grizzlies as a 10(j) nonessential experimental population. This gives land managers broader leeway and additional tools to prevent conflicts and promote coexistence as people in the region learn to live alongside grizzlies once again.

Vital Ground has invested in several partnerships to support and prepare local communities for this moment. Most recently, we awarded a partner grant to Methow Valley Bear Aware for implementing electric fencing, bear-proof sanitation and other coexistence tools in communities along the eastern side of the ecosystem. (A full announcement of 2024 partner grant recipients is forthcoming later this year. You can learn about our 2023 coexistence partners here.)

As grizzlies return, we will have even more reason to expand our education and conflict-prevention partnerships in Washington state. Your support, and ongoing engagement with the public comment process, is helping make restoration of this iconic and ecologically important species a reality. It is possible that within my lifetime all six of the designated recovery zones will be home to thriving populations of grizzlies, thanks to our collective commitment to conservation. Keep an eye on our monthly email newsletter for updates on how to get involved in the Bitterroot EIS process and other stories from across our expanding grizzly country.

Learn more about the grizzly’s history in the North Cascades…

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