The mountains of North Cascades National Park in northern Washington state are God’s grizzly country. Sadly, the area’s bear population has dwindled to fewer than a dozen. So when the government ditched plans to reintroduce the animals there, some folks grrrrrrowled. Grizzly advocates hope to challenge that decision.
An estimated 50,000 grizzly bears once roamed the lower 48 U.S. states. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the Department of the Interior (DOI) managed the nation’s natural resources. That included animal species and habitats. By the 1930s, grizzly bears had all but disappeared. Most had been poisoned, shot, or trapped.
In 1975, the DOI named grizzly bears a threatened species. Since then, bears have slowly regained territory. Their numbers have increased. Today, the largest group of grizzlies—still fewer than 1,800—inhabit Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.
Grizzlies of the North Cascades are some of the most at-risk bears in the United States. Some researchers believe only about 10 bears live there today. Female bears usually produce just a few small litters, and North Cascades bears live isolated from other grizzlies.
According to Rob Smith of the National Parks Conservation Association, “Grizzlies have been an integral part of the North Cascades ecosystem for . . . years but are now one of the most threatened populations in North America.”
In 2015, the federal government began studying bears. There was hope to restore grizzlies in the North Cascades. But Interior Secretary David Bernhardt says the agency won’t try to bring bears back. His agency believes residents there don’t want more grizzlies.
Representative Dan Newhouse of central Washington state agrees. He says locals share his “concerns about introducing an apex (top of the food chain) predator into the North Cascades.”
But the Conservation Northwest environmental group says the DOI decision may not be the final word. Spokesperson Chase Gunnell points out that the North Cascades has far fewer human visitors than the other parks where bears are being relocated. He also says the U.S. Endangered Species Act mandates grizzly bear recovery plans in the North Cascades.
In the meantime, grizzlies did win one victory. Federal officials sought to give bear management to states. That probably would have legalized bear hunting. Instead, a judge restored protections for the bears in the Yellowstone region of the Rocky Mountains.
Andrea Zaccardi is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Her clients believe the North Cascades could support more than 700 grizzlies over 9,000 square miles of habitat. “Recovery there,” Zaccardi says, “is critical to the overall recovery of grizzly bears.”