Will grizzly bears again roam the North Cascades?

Not long after Bill Gaines began working to rebuild the population of grizzly bears in the North Cascade mountains, he and others decided to investigate how many there once were and why so few remained.

What they learned, in the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which trapped and traded grizzly and other furs in the Northwest for decades, was startling: Over the course of about 15 years in the middle of the 19th century, more than 4,000 grizzly pelts were processed at four trappers’ forts in the North Cascades, which extend from east of Seattle to the Canadian border.

Later, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency now charged with protecting the bears, paid trappers to remove grizzlies and other carnivores. And hunting grizzlies for sport was legal until 1967, eight years before they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“What we’ve been dealing with since then is just a small relic population that probably has been slowly declining over the years,” Gaines said recently.

With fewer than 10 believed to remain in the North Cascades, Gaines, who spent 27 years as a wildlife biologist with the National Forest Service in the region, eventually set out to try to find them.

Early this decade, he and others began building what eventually became more than 600 “hair snares” in some of the most remote but grizzly-friendly regions of the North Cascades.

The idea was to capture grizzly fur at barbed wire “corrals” set up around an irresistible goo of salmon and congealed roadkill. It was rugged and exhausting work. Smelly too. It also confirmed how great the challenge of restoring grizzlies could be.

“We got about 700 samples of black bear hair,” Gaines said. “We didn’t get a single grizzly bear hair.”

Now, three decades after he began, Gaines is still trying to help grizzlies recover. And although he left the Forest Service a few years ago, the effort to which he and a few other state and federal employees have devoted themselves since the 1980s is expected to finally reach a firm decision as soon as next year on what, precisely, should be done to help save grizzlies in the North Cascades.

The possibilities, outlined in a draft environmental impact statement that is open for public review, range widely.

Wildlife officials could decide to transfer bears to the region from other places at a relatively rapid rate, with the goal of reaching a population of 200 in as few as 25 years. Or they could move much more slowly, reaching 200 bears 60 to 100 years after beginning a transfer program.

Or they could do nothing at all, simply leaving in place current efforts to protect habitat with the hope that grizzlies will essentially recover on their own — a notion Gaines and others say is unlikely.

The plodding process has long stirred division. Environmental groups advocate transferring bears. Ranchers and other residents of rural areas often oppose that idea out of concern for livestock and human safety.

Though tension is standard in debates over predator preservation, the long-simmering grizzly issue faces an extra wrinkle: the unexpected presidency of Donald Trump and the array of questions it has raised about the management of public lands in the West. Almost all of the designated grizzly recovery area in the North Cascades is federal land.

President Trump appointed Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman who calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt” conservationist, as Interior secretary. As president, Roosevelt liked to hunt grizzly bears, but he also set aside millions of acres as public land to help protect them, and he wrote that fears of grizzlies were exaggerated.

Trump has yet to appoint a director for the Fish and Wildlife Service or National Park Service, the two agencies that would lead the grizzly effort.

Meanwhile, the period in which the public can comment on the various proposals, scheduled to end last week, has been extended until April 28. The extension was announced Monday, shortly after an unusual development.

Matthew Inman, a cartoonist who runs the popular website theoatmeal.com and a supporter of grizzly restoration, posted a message on the site and on Twitter, where he has more than half a million followers, asking for 50,000 people to comment on the proposals on the National Park Service website. Inman, who lives in Seattle, said on his site that he has donated at least $25,000 to groups supporting grizzly restoration.

His social media campaign has had an impact. By Friday, the number of public comments on grizzly restoration had soared to 116,000. A week earlier, it had been 7,000.

Jack Oelfke, the chief of natural and cultural resources for North Cascades National Park, said the surge was striking and “can give a sense of some of the public sentiment.” But he and others emphasized that public comments on delicate environmental decisions are “not a vote.” The idea, he said, is to get “substantive comments” that offer fresh insight or concerns.

Grizzly bears have been successfully relocated into some areas, and their dramatically increased population in and around Yellowstone National Park — about 700 bears — has prompted the government to propose removing them from protection under the Endangered Species Act there.

But Oelfke said the effort in the North Cascades had lacked momentum and money for several years until it became a priority of two appointees of President Obama — Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, and Dan Ashe, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, both of whom left their jobs in January.

“They were supportive of getting this going,” Oelfke said.

He and Gaines both declined to speculate on how the change in administration might affect the effort now.

Gaines noted that the effort to protect grizzlies has survived administrations of varying political stripes. He suggesting worrying less about politics than the big picture. Grizzlies, he said, once ranged far beyond the relatively small pockets where they still exist.

“A lot of the isolation we see now is that bears are still hanging out in places people didn’t quite get to,” he said. “We’ve developed all around them, and it sort of leaves this island situation.”

Now, he said, “there’s this idea of taking an ecosystem and putting the pieces back together. There are many places in the Lower 48 where that’s not an option, where we don’t have enough land in public ownership that’s wild enough to even consider doing that.

“Outside of the Rocky Mountains, we really don’t have that option anywhere but the North Cascades. So the question is, do we have the desire to have this species in a variety of places throughout their historic range?”

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