Big grizzly populations in places like Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide, where about 1,600 grizzlies live, are recovery successes for the species.
Wildlife managers in other ecosystems are looking to those successes as they consider reintroducing bears into other parts of the West.
Only about 20 grizzly bears live in the North Cascades ecosystem of north central Washington. Jack Oeflke works for North Cascades National Park.
“To get to a few hundred animals there it could take 50 to 100 years," says Oeflke. "So I’ll never see it, but working on it, and hoping we can steer it in that direction is pretty exciting.”
Oelfke spoke today at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s winter meeting where biologists and wildlife managers from several states and the federal government discussed the progress of all the recovery zones throughout Northwest.
The grizzly bear was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1975. Populations have now rebounded to high enough levels in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems that there is now talk of removing that protection.
That would allow some hunting and other state management changes of the bear in those landscapes. Oelfke says the Northern Cascade ecosystem is also a historical home to grizzly bears.
But, he says hunting and development there all but cleared the bear species from a habitat of comparable size to Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide.
“For many years now there hasn’t been much of a population and in fact we don't believe there are any reproducing females in the population now. We are starting from an ecosystem with a historic population and ample grizzly bear habitat but no real functional population there.”
The plan to make the Northern Cascades a recovery zone was approved in 1997. Oelfke says over the past twenty years a lot of ground work had to be done to make sure the land was and the people living there ready to receive the bears.
“A lot of education and outreach, and then honestly getting the political will together with the different agencies and so on. And most recently, actually getting the funding.”
The funding is for a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is set to be released this coming summer.
“Which will talk about various alternatives of how we'll go out and recovery grizzly bears. And assuming we stay on task and with the process; in about two years from now we should have our record of decision, which would be the final decision made about how we'll recover grizzlies in the North Cascades.”
Oelfke says an important part of the recovery effort in the Cascades is getting the public on board with turning their landscape into bear country. He points people with concerns about what it means to live among bears to communities in places like Yellowstone or northwest Montana where bears never left the land.
“Backcountry horseman groups, or mountain bikers, whatever, and ask them what their experiences are here, and hopefully get them to understand that it can work potentially in the North Cascades.”
Although some have expressed concerns about reintroducing the grizzly into the Northern Cascades, Oelfke says overall there is broad support of bear population recovery.
A final decision on the Environmental Impact Statement is planned for the Fall of 2017. That will lay out how and if grizzlies will be reintroduced in the Northern Cascades.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee will meet again in late June to discuss to the progress of all the recovery zones throughout the Northwest.
[12/11/15: Edited story to clarify that a decision about whether to reintroduce grizzlies to the Cascades is still being considered.]