Federal and state agencies in Washington state's rugged North Cascades are racing to save the iconic grizzly bear before the 600-pound behemoths disappear.
Grizzlies that once numbered in the thousands from north-central Washington into British Columbia have dwindled to no more than 30 or so animals spread across the North Cascades ecosystem, 13,600 square miles in the United States and Canada.
"Given what we know, there's few bears left," said Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator in Missoula, Mont. "It's a very, very small number."
The National Park Service and FWS are leading an effort that both agencies concede is long overdue to develop a formal plan to restore grizzlies in 9,800 square miles on the U.S. side of the North Cascades ecosystem. The agencies last month formally launched an environmental impact statement (EIS) to study a host of alternatives to restore grizzly populations across one of the largest contiguous swaths of undeveloped land in the Lower 48 states.
...But while no one disagrees that grizzlies in the North Cascades are at a perilous stage, how best to increase bear populations in the region while ensuring public safety and protecting the state's valuable livestock and ranching industries has already sparked a lot of public debate, as well as concerns from some local government leaders.
..."From our perspective, the only appropriate alternative is for the augmentation or translocation of bears into the [North Cascades] habitat," said Elizabeth Ruther, the Seattle-based Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife who has led the group's efforts to promote grizzly bear recovery in the Cascade Mountains.
But the mere possibly of augmenting the population in the North Cascades with grizzlies from out of state has raised the ire of the livestock industry, which worries about cattle depredation not only from grizzlies but from a growing population of gray wolves that have been designated as endangered by the state.