White Sulphur grizzly

A 3-year-old grizzly bear inspects a rock west of White Sulphur Springs in this game-camera photo from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Another grizzly sighting was confirmed by video on private land between the Missouri River and Hound Creek south of Cascade. Biologists believe the bear is a young male and has not caused any conflicts.

Work on grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades Ecosystem has been halted even as the continental United States’ two largest grizzly populations near removal from Endangered Species Act protection.

North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee on Wednesday that her staff had been asked to stop work on its environmental impact statement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's office.

The order also stalls discussions with Canadian wildlife managers who oversee a similar grizzly recovery process in British Columbia, she said.

“We were in the process of evaluating public comment,” Taylor-Goodrich said of the stop order. “We’re in year three of the process and all the public scoping has been done. The draft EIS went out for public review in spring and we’ve received about 127,000 comments.”

The North Cascades Ecosystem includes the national park and large swaths of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests, totaling 9,800 square miles. It holds an estimated five to 10 grizzly bears, which the IGBC considers “the most at-risk grizzly bear population in the U.S. today.” The Canadian portion supports another six grizzlies.

In comparison, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Missoula and Glacier National Park covers about 12,000 square miles and supports about 1,000 grizzlies, the largest single population in the lower 48 states. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park covers 9,200 square miles with about 700 grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears qualified for federal protection as a threatened species in 1975. Recovery plans lay out the steps public land managers will take to bring a threatened species to a stable and sustainable population level. That can involve setting rules for motorized recreation or timber harvesting in the bear’s core habitat.

So few grizzlies inhabit the North Cascades Ecosystem that one of its main recovery tasks has been to analyze all reports of potential bear sightings within 72 hours. At the same time, increased interest in the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail has drawn thousands of backpackers through the region over the past decade.

In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published its final rule removing Greater Yellowstone grizzlies from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. It expects to publish a similar rule for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears next summer.

Delisting would hand over grizzly management authority to state wildlife agencies, and opens the possibility of classifying grizzlies as big-game animals for hunting. The Yellowstone delisting rule already faces six lawsuits arguing the bears still need federal protection.

Interior Department officials did not respond to a request for comment about the North Cascades work stoppage on Friday.

At Wednesday’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting in Missoula, WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director Bethany Cotton asked the committee to request to restart the North Cascades review.

“There’s been a lot of really positive work taken by the (National) Park Service and FWS,” Cotton told the committee members. “Don’t disregard all those public meetings, and the significant support for restoring grizzlies in the North Cascades.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.