Efforts to restore grizzly bears in and around Washington’s North Cascades National Park have resumed after Department of the Interior officials put the process on hold last December.

“Restoring the grizzly bear to the North Cascades Ecosystem is the American conservation ethic come to life,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Friday during a visit to the park headquarters. 

“We are managing the land and the wildlife according to the best science and best practices. The loss of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades would disturb the ecosystem and rob the region of an icon," he said. "We are moving forward with plans to restore the bear to the North Cascades, continuing our commitment to conservation and living up to our responsibility as the premier stewards of our public land.”

The North Cascades Ecosystem has no resident grizzlies in its 6.1-million-acre swath of National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Washington state land. Another 2.4 million adjacent acres in British Columbia have had only two confirmed grizzly sightings in the past 10 years.

Park officials informed the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in December that they’d been ordered to stop work on an environmental impact statement for grizzly recovery plans. They were in the process of reviewing about 126,000 public comments and working with Canadian wildlife officials when the Interior Department order arrived. The three-year project was expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

“With a change in administration on an issue such as grizzly recovery, it’s common we would brief incoming administration officials, and it took us a while to get that done,” North Cascades Natural and Cultural Resource Manager Jack Oelfke said after Friday’s press conference. “Once that happens, the Department of Interior has decided it’s worth it to keep moving in the North Cascades.”

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. The draft EIS considers transplanting grizzlies from other places with larger populations, such as Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem or Canada.

“He seemed to give a bright-green signal to recovering the grizzly bear in the North Cascades, with details to be announced later,” said National Parks Conservation Association Northwest regional director Rob Smith, who attended the gathering. “It renews our hope that grizzly recovery will have a haven in the North Cascades.”

While many at the press conference and outside the park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, applauded Zinke’s call to “restore ecosystem harmony” by reintroducing grizzlies, a coalition of livestock owners sent statements of opposition.

 “The idea of dumping man-eating grizzly bears from helicopters into Washington national parks has not been well thought out,” Washington Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president Sarah Ryan wrote in an email. “Once the grizzly bears walk out of the park into rural towns and private and state lands, the communities surrounding the recovery area can be greatly impacted.

"Already the livestock community has had little to no help with the management and recovery of wolves in the North Cascades, and cannot accept and welcome another federally listed apex predator with no monetary help from the federal government. What is the reasoning behind thinking a recovery like this can be accomplished without the support of the ranching, logging, recreation, and natural resource based communities or consideration for public safety?”

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.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages grizzly recovery. Last July, it removed Endangered Species Act protection from about 700 bears inhabiting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, turning those bears over to state management.

Wyoming and Idaho have already announced plans for grizzly hunting seasons this fall. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners have opted not to offer a season in 2018, pending the outcome of federal court legal challenges to the delisting rule.

“This will be a very different situation from Yellowstone or the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” said FWS Grizzly Recovery Coordinator Hillary Cooley in Missoula. “We don’t have a population there at all. We have to get a population going and meet recovery goals before we can think about delisting in North Cascades. Even if we reintroduce bears, it’s going to take a long time.”

After the press conference, Interior officials said the North Cascades grizzly recovery final EIS should be completed by late summer 2018.

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