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Public Input Sought On Plan For Grizzly Bear Reintroduction In Washington

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service is evaluating whether to reintroduce grizzly bears to Washington's North Cascades.
A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service is evaluating whether to reintroduce grizzly bears to Washington's North Cascades.

The North Cascades of Washington used to be home to thousands of grizzly bears. Their numbers have dwindled to only a handful over the past century, mainly after over-hunting for fur in the late 1800s.

Now, the federal government is asking for the public's input on its plans to boost grizzly bear numbers in Washington’s North Cascades.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service are hosting meetings for public comment starting Tuesday for people to voice their opinions, which will be taken into consideration during the planning stages of the recovery process. Meetings are scheduled for:

Winthrop, 5-7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 3, Red Barn Upper Meeting Room

Okanogan, 5-7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 4, Okanogan PUD Meeting Room

Wenatchee, 6-8:30 p.m., Thursday, March 5, Cheland County PUD Auditorium

Cle Elum, 5-7:30 p.m., Monday, March 9, Putnum Centennial Center Meeting Room

Seattle, 5-7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 10, Seattle Pacific University Bertona Classroom 1

Bellingham, 5-7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 11, Bellingham Central Library Lecture Room

There are so few grizzly bears right now in Washington’s North Cascades that the most recent time someone actual saw a bear in Washington was in 1996. Another grizzly was photographed just over the Canadian border in 2010.

Now, 40 years after the bears were put on the endangered species list, the federal government is looking at ways to boost bear numbers. That ranges from staying the course and letting the bears recover on their own to bringing in bears captured elsewhere. Biologists will help ferret out several options with an environmental impact statement.

Denise Schultz with the National Park Service in the North Cascades said safety and livestock predation have been at the top of people’s concerns so far.

“Part of the planning process is to see if there is a way that we can help mitigate or minimize those types of impacts and determine whether or not it’s the right thing to do,” Schultz said.

The decision process will take three years, but recovering Washington’s grizzlies will take far longer than that, possibly up to a century to fully recover the population, said Joe Scott, international conservation director at Conservation Northwest.

“Grizzly bear recovery takes a terribly long time because of their slow reproduction rates,” Scott said. “They don’t generally move very far from the place they were born. They don’t have cubs until relatively late in life. Cub survival is generally around 50 percent.“

A study of a similarly sized ecosystem in Idaho showed it could take 50-120 years for recovery efforts to reach a self-sustaining population.

“Having grizzly bears in the area is really the sign of a healthy ecosystem,” Schultz said. “Bears are omnivores, and they eat a lot of plants and vegetation. They do eat meat, often it’s a lot of bugs and grubs, and that kind of thing. Occasionally they’ll steal other predators’ kill. And occasionally they’ll take down young deer or elk.”

Scott said grizzly bears are rarely seen in the wild. As inefficient predators they’re more interested in food than people. He said people “don’t figure into that equation.”

“People’s best weapon to avoid conflict with bears, or any other animal, is their brain,” Scott said. “If we don’t give them a reason to associate people with food, they won’t look at us with dinner in their eyes.”

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Courtney Flatt