Suddenly Abandoned: Grizzly Recovery in the North Cascades

Back in early July, the Department of Interior (DOI) and Secretary David Bernardt abruptly and capriciously cancelled two decades of work to restore grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE) of Washington State, citing “widespread public opposition.” (Think: pandering to ranchers and backdoor special interests groups.) But would it surprise our readers to learn that a majority of Washingtonians actually support grizzly restoration in the wilds of the North Cascades, or that the science is clear that the NCE is critical, high-quality habitat for the bears? Halting recovery efforts represents another tick on the list of recent legislative rollbacks by the current Administration aimed at undercutting environmental protections, including weakening the National Environmental Policy Act and opening up sensitive areas of the Arctic to drilling. It’s part of a larger pattern that is putting wildlife and wildlands at risk not only in the North Cascades but across the country. 

Bernhardt made the announcement while visiting the state on July 7th. “The people who live and work in north-central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want the grizzly bear reintroduced into the North Cascades.” Bernhardt went on to say that grizzlies “are not in danger of extinction, and the Interior will continue to build on its conservation successes managing healthy grizzly bear populations across their existing range.” 

Kaitlynn Glover, Executive Director of the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association, applauded the Secretary’s decision: “Really what this announcement comes down to is that the cattlemen, sheep producers and community were able to stir up enough opposition, and the science didn’t support reintroduction, so ultimately the DOI made the call that grizzly bears will not be reintroduced in the North Cascades, which is really good news.” 

In response, the Center for Biological Diversity initiated a lawsuit against the DOI, challenging its decision on the grounds that “reintroduction termination violates the Endangered Species Act.” 

So what’s really going on here, and why is this conversation so important? It seems prudent to pause a moment and consider what’s at stake not only for Washingtonians, but also for the bear, when it comes to halted restoration efforts of the North Cascades grizzly.

North Cascades Grizzlies by the Numbers 

Biologists have been working to return grizzlies to the NCE for over two decades, and in 2015 a draft recovery plan was introduced under the Obama Administration to push efforts forward. Since new leadership took office, however, the DOI has been sending contradictory messages to those involved in the bear’s recovery, first telling biologists to halt, then later resume the program. That is, until the federal government completely pulled the plug last month.

Grizzly bears were initially listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) back in 1975. Following this designation, six critical recovery zones were identified across the bear’s historic range, including 10,000 square miles in north-central Washington anchored around North Cascades National Park and surrounded by a matrix of wilderness areas. It is the only recovery zone outside of the Rockies. 

The North Cascades is one of the largest intact, wild ecosystems in the Lower 48. Because of its size, remote character and diversity of food sources, it is considered prime grizzly habitat that biologists have estimated could support around 280 bears, but today fewer than 10 grizzlies remain inside the recovery area. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has labeled the NCE as “the most at risk grizzly population in the US today.” Part of the proposed recovery plan included the transportation and relocation of bears from other population areas. 

Chris Morgan, bear ecologist and host of The Wild Podcast, estimates that historic grizzly bear numbers once topped around 50,000 in the Lower 48. It’s unbelievable that today’s population has dwindled to less than 5%, or fewer than 2,000 individuals. (Think: ~720 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and ~1,000 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem). With such a small number remaining in the western contiguous United States, it is easy to see why protecting and reestablishing even a few hundred bears in the North Cascades is critical for the long term survival and recovery of the species as a whole.

Ignoring Grizzly Science and Public Process

The DOI’s decision to stop grizzly recovery efforts represents a swift departure from a yearslong public process that has consistently documented strong public support in the region, led by science and informed by community input. To begin with, the Interior blatantly ignored required analysis of the recovery plan under the ESA, which is an important part of the regulatory process. Had the DOI completed this step, many believe that the science as well as the legal obligations would never have supported termination of the program.  

And despite the Interior’s arguments to the contrary, there is strong public support for grizzly recovery. Conservation Northwest spokesperson Chase Gunnel reminds us that public polling and past comment periods for the initial draft recovery proposal (Think: The Obama era plan) showed that 80% of respondents supported bringing grizzlies back to the wilds of the North Cascades. In case you’re a numbers person, that’s nearly 133,000 favorable comments out of 143,000 that were submitted. And this is not a red vs. blue issue either: grizzly restoration is something that residents on both sides of the Cascade crest are behind (Think: Seattle and surrounding metropolitan areas to the West of the mountains, and Wenatchee and surrounding communities to the East). 

Coexistence With Grizzlies is Entirely Possible

At the end of the day, the DOI’s decision to halt recovery efforts was abrupt and lacked transparency. It flouts science. It represents bad public process, and it ignores the voices of many constituents that the Interior has an obligation to serve, including the bears. 

If restoration efforts are not resumed in the North Cascades, it could mean the local extinction of grizzlies in Washington state. It will also be an irrefutable loss for every person, including Washingtonians, who cares about the health of wildlife and wild places. We can do better. Whether recreators, residents or ranchers, people who visit or live near the NCE are capable of sharing the landscape with a few hundred bears. Western communities elsewhere have already demonstrated that coexistence with grizzly bears is possible (Think: the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems), and we can do the same for a nascent population in the Pacific Northwest.