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Conservation groups celebrate plan to restore grizzly bears to North Cascades

Date
June 3, 2024
Contact
Lizzy Pennock, WildEarth Guardians, lpennock@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Montana, Public Lands, Washington, Wildlife   Grizzly bear
#DefendCarnivores, #EndangeredSpeciesAct, #ForceForNature, #PressStatement, #Rewilding
MISSOULA, Mont.—Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s rule to restore grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades went into effect. The agency passed the rule under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which allows it to establish experimental populations of listed species outside their current range. Conservationists celebrate the grizzly bears’ upcoming  return to the North Cascades, but are wary of potential impacts to source populations and the rule’s allowances for the killing of bears. 

“Grizzlies were a vital part of this ecosystem for tens of thousands of years, and we are thrilled they will return to this part of their homeland,” said Lizzy Pennock, carnivore coexistence attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “Re-establishing grizzlies where humans once wiped them out can make the entire Lower 48 population more resilient, especially in the face of threats like climate change and state governments in the northern Rockies that are intent on killing carnivores”

Grizzlies were a keystone species in the North Cascades of north-central Washington for close to 70,000 years before European settlers wiped the population out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The grizzly bear population in the Lower 48 states, once numbering near 50,000, declined by almost 99% as settlers moved west and killed them for the fur trade, to make room for non-native livestock, and by destroying their habitat. 

“Recovery for grizzly bears requires sustainable and connected populations in multiple ecosystems,” said Sarah McMillan, wildlands and wildlife program director for the Western Environmental Law Center. “The North Cascades reintroduction plan has the potential to re-occupy this large, wild, landscape that crosses the border with Canada. While we advocate for better protections for the bears that will be relocated to the North Cascades, the prospect of a renewed population in this remote, high quality habitat is exciting.”

Today, after almost 50 years of federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, the still-recovering population of around 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states occupies just 4% of its historic range, limited to isolated populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. This means that most ecosystems where grizzlies once lived remain devoid of their essential contributions, even as landscapes face the climate and biodiversity crises. In addition to occupying a crucial role in the ecosystem, grizzly bears were, and still are, culturally important to many Indigenous peoples who lived alongside them for millennia. 

“As a Nez Perce Tribal member and being involved with the Grizzly issues in our 1855 Treaty area, I support the reintroduction of the Grizzlies in the North Cascades, as a critical member of the Ecosystem that has been missing from our landscape in many areas in the Pacific Northwest,” said Julian Matthews, Coordinator at Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. “This is a great move to restore this population and help them to flourish. I hope and believe this can be the start of a movement to ensure that grizzly bears can return to many of their native homelands.”

Re-establishing a population under this rule, however, is not without risks to the conservation of the Lower 48 population writ large. Bears captured for translocation to the North Cascades will be considered a loss to the donor population(s). Potential donor populations are those in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem primarily in Wyoming, and British Columbia. Both donor populations in the U.S. are still struggling to recover in the face of management killings, mistaken identity killings, poaching, train and other vehicle collisions, and habitat destruction and fragmentation, among other threats. As such, conservationists remain concerned about the potential impacts of removing bears from these populations.

“It is essential for government agencies to recognize and account for the risks posed by  taking bears from still-recovering source populations, like those in Montana and Wyoming, and placing them somewhere new,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding Manager at WildEarth Guardians. “Capturing and moving bears is not a silver bullet for recovery, and can potentially undermine the long term survival of the threatened Northern Rockies population. We will continue to hold decision makers accountable for protecting all grizzlies, wherever they roam, until they are thriving across their historic homelands.”

Grizzly bears moved to the North Cascades will also lose key protections otherwise provided by the Endangered Species Act, because the rule classifies the new North Cascades population as a “nonessential experimental population” under section 10(j), as opposed to the “threatened” classification that applies elsewhere under section 4(d). For example, habitat protections provided by the Act will not apply to the translocated bears; so, the U.S. Forest Service can approve a destructive logging project without analyzing whether it may adversely affect the bears. 

Background:

Grizzly bears are a keystone species in the ecosystems they occupy today and where they historically lived. Keystone species keep ecosystems healthy and balanced, and other plants and animals depend on keystone species’ presence for their own growth and survival. Grizzlies use their long claws to dig for plants, insects, and rodents, aerating the soil and tilling the land; through digestion, they disperse seeds; and as hunters, they help regulate prey populations. 

After tens of thousands of years of grizzlies living in what is now the western United States, including alongside Indigenous peoples, European settlers almost completely wiped them out in less than 200 years. Settlers killed them for the fur trade, to make room for non-native livestock, and by destroying their habitat. Between 1800-1970, the population in the lower-48 states went from around 50,000 bears to less than 800, declining by almost 99% before they were finally protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Over the subsequent 50 years, the tiny population clawed its way back to around 2,000 bears, occupying about 4% of their historic homeland in a few mostly disconnected areas, with no known bears occupying the North Cascades. Grizzlies face many of the same risks today as they did in the 1800s: excessive human-caused mortality led to their near extinction in the lower-48 states, and it remains the primary obstacle to their ability to fully recover. 

The process which led to today’s rule began in November 2022, when the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service jointly initiated a process to develop a grizzly bear restoration plan for the North Cascades Ecosystem. In September 2023, the agencies published the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and draft rule under section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, receiving over 12,000 comments on each. The agencies released the final EIS on March 21, 2024, the associated Record of Decision to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades on April 25, 2024, and the associated Endangered Species Act section 10(j) rule on May 3, 2024, which went into effect today.

Grizzly bear sow and her two young cubs. Photo by Sam Parks.

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WildEarth Guardians is a conservation nonprofit whose mission is to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Guardians has offices in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, and over 179,000 members and supporters worldwide.

The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) uses the power of the law to foster thriving, resilient western U.S. lands, waters, wildlife, and communities in the face of a changing climate. We envision a western U.S. abundant with protected and interconnected ecosystems, powered by renewable energy, and cared for by communities brought together in an ecology of kinship.

Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment works to carry on the time-honored sustainable environmental practices in the tradition of the Nimiipuu by facilitating and organizing tribal youth and adults in activities for the protection, enhancement, and promotion of mother earth and the Nimiipuu culture.

Other Contact
Sarah McMillan, Western Environmental Law Center, mcmillan@westernlaw.org, Julian Matthews, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, protectingnimiipuu@gmail.com