SEATTLE Grizzly bear populations are on the rebound in some of the recovery zones the federal government mapped out after listing the animal as threatened nearly 30 years ago. But not in Washington's North Cascades.
Biologists here estimate only five to 20 grizzlies inhabit a 9,600-square-mile stretch of wilderness where historians believe hundreds roamed before the bears became targets of 19th-century hunters and fur traders.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a grizzly bear recovery plan for the North Cascades in 1997. While the agency usually fields a few reports a year of potential grizzly sightings in the North Cascades, it hasn't confirmed one since 1996, said Doug Zimmer, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service's office in Olympia, Wash.
Geographically, the North Cascades is one of the largest of six recovery zones, but it has one of the smallest grizzly populations.
Environmental groups have suggested that grizzlies be transplanted from robust populations in British Columbia into Washington state's North Cascades.
''We have a 10,000-square-mile recovery zone here very secure, a large percentage of that land is in federal status,'' said Joe Scott, international conservation coordinator for the Bellingham, Wash.-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. ''It's a habitat-in-waiting.''
British Columbia is moving forward with its own plan to increase the number of grizzlies on its side of the North Cascades. An estimated five to 20 bears roam there, just like on Washington's side of the mountains.
Scott's group, along with the Defenders of Wildlife, say they plan to sue Fish and Wildlife in June, arguing the agency hasn't done enough to implement the recovery plan. The groups also want the grizzly's status to be increased to endangered, signifying the bear is not just threatened but on the brink of extinction.
Officials overseeing the recovery plan say they're hamstrung by a lack of funding.
''In a perfect world we would do more to recover the grizzlies in the North Cascades,'' Zimmer said. ''In the world of budgetary and staff constraints, we're pretty much doing all we can.''
Chad Henneman, vice president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, said he doesn't think grizzlies need the government's help.
''Nobody wants to see a grizzly in your back yard,'' he said.
''If it's out there killing your horse, killing your dog, you can't shoot it. It's protected. ... We really have a problem with that.''
About 1,100 grizzlies live in the lower 48 states, where they were listed as threatened in 1975.
About half of them are in and around Yellowstone National Park, said Chris Servheen, a Fish and Wildlife grizzly bear coordinator based in Missoula, Mont.
Another 25-40 grizzlies in a smaller swath of wilderness in the Selkirk Mountains straddling the northeastern corner of Washington state and the northern tip of the Idaho Panhandle. To the southeast, about the same number live in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zone.
Biologists believe grizzlies are on the rise in a 12,400-square-mile swath of the Rocky Mountains in northwest Montana known as the Northern Cont inental Divide, said Servheen, who's overseeing a new survey of that area.
There are no grizzlies in Idaho's Bitterroot recovery zone. In 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton backed off a plan to reintroduce bears in that area after Gov. Dirk Kempthorne sued to stop the proposal, saying it would force ''massive, flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho.''
Serveen said the animals usually avoid human contact and only about 10 percent of their diet is fish and meat, and most of that is carrion from deer or elk killed during winter.
Nationally, the government spends about $450,000 a year on grizzly bear recovery efforts.
Last year, the agency got about $10,000 for grizzly bear recovery in north-central Washington's Cascades. The money was spent on publishing a brochure about grizzlies as part of a public outreach project.
The year before, the agency spent about $87,000 installing bear-resistant trash containers at campsites throughout the North Cascades.
On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife: http://www.fws.gov/
Northwest Ecosystem Alliance: http://www.ecosystem.org/
Defenders of Wildlife: http://www.defenders.org
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