Talks underway to reintroduce grizzlies to North Cascades

Grizzlies could be returned

As debate rages south of the border on the proposed reintroduction of grizzly bears into the North Cascades, it won’t be long before the same discussions are taking place in B.C.

Last week, 450 people piled into a hall in Omak, Wash. for a raucous public meeting on a proposal that would transport grizzly bears from B.C. or Montana into the North Cascades National Park. 

“We are talking about that kind of thing in the next year on the B.C. side,” B.C. Government large carnivore specialist Garth Mowat told Castanet News.

Perhaps thousands of grizzlies once roamed the North Cascades — the mountain range between the Fraser and Similkameen Rivers, continuing south into Washington State. Present day, the population has been functionally extirpated, with only sporadic sightings over the past two decades. 

To the east in the Okanagan, grizzlies have long been extirpated, while the fast flowing Fraser makes it impossible for populations to enter the area from the west. 

“There has been no way for grizzly bears to get back into that area on their own, even though there is a lot of really good habitat there,” Mowat said. “It could support hundreds of bears.”

Back in 2001, the provincial government published a recovery plan for the North Cascade grizzly population. Included in the plan was the transplant of bears from elsewhere in B.C. to the region, but that never made it past the public consultation stages around 2004. 

“The thing that has to be done in B.C., is to consult with local stakeholders to convince the government of B.C. that the local people are actually willing to live with grizzly bears in that area,” Mowat said.

He said a working group in B.C. made up of First Nations, environmental groups and the provincial government is getting ready to put that plan back before the public again.

“This population has been extirpated for about 100 years, so these are people that have not had to live with grizzly bears for a long long time, generations,” he said. “It’s not a trivial question.”

Mowat said the provincial government will be able to offer impacted communities funding for things like fencing, livestock management and bear aware coordinators. But regardless, he expects large groups on both sides of the debate here in B.C.

“We have things we can offer the communities, but when push comes to shove, they have to be willing to live with grizzly bears,” he said. “There will be lots of viewpoints on it.”

With grizzlies at the very top of the food chain, their reintroduction could provide large benefits for the entire ecosystem. South of the border, ranchers are worried the apex predator could view livestock as food. 

Mowat says it is estimated the Canadian portion of the North Cascades could support 250 grizzlies, with another 300 south of the border. He said there are “no shortage” of grizzlies in B.C. — about 15,000 — that could be good candidates for the North Cascades. 

Should the Americans decide to move ahead with grizzly reintroduction south of the border, the provincial government and First Nations would have to approve the move of any B.C. grizzlies across the border. The Americans are also considering moving grizzlies from Montana, but Mowat says B.C. bears would probably fit the ecosystem of the North Cascades better. 

“This is west side of the Cascades, the rainy side of the Cascades is a very productive ecosystem,” he said.

Stakes are somewhat higher in the United States, where the grizzly bear is listed as endangered, and the North Cascades are “probably their best chunk of habitat that is unoccupied by grizzly bears,” said Mowat.

It’s expected more information on the B.C. proposal to reintroduce grizzlies to the area will be released this fall.

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