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Feds again seek comment on North Cascades grizzly bear plans

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Contentious proposals to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington state are once again open for public comment. 

The plan, drafted by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, drew mixed responses from locals in 2017 with over 126,000 comments, the Daily Herald reported .

It includes four options for grizzly bear recovery. Three would bring bears in from Montana or British Columbia to bolster the local population. The goal would be to reach 200 bears.

A fourth proposal calls for continuing current efforts to keep habitat healthy.

Work on the proposals was halted by the Trump administration in December of 2017.

Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ordered work stop on a key planning document — the environmental impact statement for the grizzly restoration project. He then restarted that work in 2018.

The document is available for review and comment online. The comment period ends Oct. 24.

Grizzlies were listed as a threatened species in the U.S. in 1975 and as endangered in Washington in 1980. Now, scientists don't have enough evidence to say there is any population in the North Cascades.

Kevin Ashe, a councilmember in the North Cascades town of Darrington, said his stance against bringing grizzlies back into the North Cascades hasn't changed. He fears what bringing more bears into the ecosystem would mean for outdoor recreation and logging, which are large economic drivers for the area.

If a bear wandered onto a trail or into a logging area, he worries those places could be closed.

Joe Scott, the international programs director with Conservation Northwest, said that's unlikely to happen.

"Once this process is underway I don't think people will see any changes to their lives as we know them," he said.

Each option in the draft plan takes a different approach to grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades.

The first suggests bringing up to 10 grizzlies from Montana or British Columbia and releasing them in a remote location over the course of two summers. They would be monitored for two years before officials decide whether to bring in more bears.

The second option would release five to seven bears at multiple sites each year for up to 10 years, or until the population reaches 25 grizzlies.

Experts say those plans could help the population reach 200 bears in 60 to 100 years.

The third possibility calls for releasing five to seven bears each year, at different locations, until the goal of 200 is reached through releases and births. It would take an estimated 25 years and may require relocating up to 168 bears during that time.

The relocation options would cost between $6 million and $8.5 million over 20 to 25 years.

The area covers about 9,800 square miles in Washington and 3,800 square miles in British Columbia.

The last verified grizzly on the U.S. side of the border was in 1996, and the last verified reproduction in 1991.

The North Cascades are one of six zones identified by federal officials as locations for grizzly recovery. So far, Yellowstone and north central Montana have seen growth.

Today, Scott said there are probably 700 grizzly bears in Yellowstone.

"Clearly, grizzly bears and humans coexist there," he said.

The grizzly population in the North Cascades is entirely isolated from other reproducing groups, so it won't ever recover on its own, Scott said.

If grizzlies are brought to the Cascades, it will be the only population outside of the Rockies, he said.

"It's important from a species standpoint to have more distribution of the animal in case of disease breakouts or ecological disasters," he said.

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