The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife are evaluating options to restore and manage grizzly bears in the North Cascades of Washington.
Since 1997, the North Cascades have been managed as a grizzly bear habitat, but the species is functionally extinct in the area, according to wildlife officials, who say there are fewer than 10 grizzly bears in the area.
The two organizations initiated an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to identify a range of alternatives to restore the population in the Cascades, with an eventual plan to delist grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act in the contiguous United States.
Grizzly bears used to roam the Cascades, but were largely killed off years ago. The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife started to study the restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades in 2015, but the Trump administration stopped the process in 2020.
Wildlife and park officials will use the data and comments from the 2015 to 2020 study as they work to gather information and decide the scope of its new EIS.
The North Cascades has more than 9,500 square miles of wild areas, which is one of the largest in the lower 48 states. North Cascades National Park is located in portions of Whatcom, Skagit, and Chelan counties. It includes two large national recreation areas. Since nearly all of North Cascades National Park is protected as wilderness, there are few park structures and roads.
In 2016, the North Cascades National Park recorded 28,646 visitors, while adjoining Ross Lake National Recreation Area had 905,418 visitors. Lake Chelan National Recreation Area brought in 45,514 visitors. Most of the direct access to the North Cascades National Park is not motorized but comes from hikers or horseback riders.
Surrounding the area are large swathes of national forest. Due to its relative isolation from other wildernesses, environmental groups said it is not likely to be repopulated from natural bear migration. It’s one of two designated grizzly recovery areas without a population of bears.
Complicating recovery efforts is the fact that grizzly bears only birth one to three cubs every two to four years, meaning populations take longer to grow.
The two agencies have proposed capturing grizzly bears in British Columbia or in the Rocky Mountains to release them into the North Cascades at a rate of three to seven bears each year for roughly five to 10 years.
Along with the EIS, it is possible for Fish and Wildlife officials to designate grizzlies as an “experimental population” as there is a federal rule that allows the managers of public lands to be more flexible with potential problems that could arise with their introduction.
Grizzly bears can weigh between 290 to 790 pounds. They are considerably larger than black bears, which are common in many areas of Washington state and the United States. Between 2020 to 2022, there were eight fatal grizzly bear attacks in North America. From 2015 to 2019, there were seven fatal attacks. In comparison, there are between 30 to 50 fatal attacks on humans from dogs a year in the United States.
Grizzly bear attacks are considered rare, and when they do happen, it is typically because the animals are protecting food, cubs or their own territory, wildlife officials said.
The bears previously had a range from Alaska down to Mexico but hunting and habitat loss severely limited the range. Around 60,000 grizzly bears are located in North America. Of that, 30,000 are in Alaska and 29,000 are in Canada. About 1,000 grizzly bears live in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana around Yellowstone National Park.
Virtual public meetings on the grizzly bear relocation and recovery efforts in the North Cascades will be held at noon on Dec. 1 and at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2.
The public can submit comments or access the meetings online at parkplanning.nps.gov/NCEGrizzly.