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This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In 1996, a Canadian researcher stumbled upon a female grizzly bear snacking on a bushel of berries in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades — a mountainous national park in northwest Washington that is roughly the size of Vermont.

What he didn’t know at the time was that this would be the last confirmed grizzly bear sighting in this region.

The majority of these bears were killed by hunters and miners in the 1800s, a trend echoed across the U.S. as grizzlies were nearly wiped off the map. However, a small contingent of these furry mammals could soon wander the jagged peaks and rolling alpine forests of the country’s North Cascades once again.

After years of on-and-off planning and heated debate, the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a decision to actively reintroduce grizzly bears to this region, with plans to release three to seven bears annually over the next five to 10 years.

“I’m thrilled that it’s happening,” Chris Servheen, who helped kickstart this process before he retired in 2016 after 35 years as the grizzly bear recovery co-ordinator for USFWS, told me. “There are very few areas left where we can still put grizzly bears. What we need is big pieces of wild country that are contiguous. The North Cascades is one of those.”

But where exactly will they go? Why is this happening? Is this safe? Today, we’re exploring the ins and outs of this grizzly bear reintroduction effort.

How will it work?

The federal agencies’ plan includes gathering a handful of grizzly bears from large populations in other regions, including the Northern Continental Divide, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem or interior British Columbia.

The U.S. government is set to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades. What happens now? #GrizzlyBears

After safely trapping the bears, officials will then transport the several hundred-pound mammals by helicopter to remote areas of the North Cascades that have readily available berries for them to snack on (fun fact: grizzly bears can eat as many as 200,000 berries in a single day). Another key criteria for the bears’ new home is that they are far from roads, as car and train collisions are one of the leading causes of death for grizzlies.

At the start, it’s up to the bears what will happen next, according to Gordon Stenhouse, a Canadian biologist who has worked on grizzly bear research at fRI Research, a non-profit research firm.

“When grizzly bears are moved, they have to explore the new environment because they don’t know where the food is found. They don’t know where other animals may be,” he told me. “They also will probably encounter people and roads and all the other things that are in the environment, and they’ll have to learn about their new environment — same as if you moved me from Alberta, Canada, to New York City.”

He added that it isn’t unheard of for a bear to try to return to where it came from, potentially traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to where it was first caught. According to the NPS’ website, the prime candidates for this initiative are grizzly “subadults” between two and five years old that have not exhibited a history of human conflict. Servheen says these bears are more likely to adapt to a new place and less likely to travel near developed areas.

Though the start date has not yet been announced, the end goal of the project is to grow the grizzly bear population to 200, which may take at least 60 years, according to the federal agencies. Grizzly bears need ample space to forage, hunt and reside, and research suggests that the North Cascades can support up to around 280 bears.

However, climate change could actually slightly expand the capacity for grizzly bears in this region by melting snowpack and increasing foraging grounds in meadows, making them “especially good candidates for reintroduction efforts in some ecosystems” in the face of climate uncertainty, according to a 2023 study.

Why is the government doing this?

As top predators, grizzly bears lived in the North Cascades for thousands of years, keeping food chains in check and distributing seeds across the forest. Grizzly bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states, meaning that the USFWS is required by law to protect them. This reintroduction is part of the agency’s recovery plan.

“We are going to once again see grizzly bears on the landscape, restoring an important thread in the fabric of the North Cascades.” Don Striker, superintendent of North Cascades National Park Service Complex, said in a statement.

Grizzly bears are also culturally important to tribes across the Pacific Northwest. The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has lived with grizzlies for at least 9,000 years, Scott Schuyler, a tribal elder and natural and cultural resources policy representative, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

However, not everyone is as supportive of this top predator’s potential comeback; some tribes are concerned about the safety of tribal members while fishing for salmon. Ranchers, farmers and livestock owners have also voiced strong opposition to the federal government’s plan, fearing that the bears will get into their livestock or crops.

“Today’s announcement reinforces what we feared: No amount of local opposition was going to prevent these federal bureaucrats from doing what they wanted all along,” U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said in a statement.

So is it safe?

Though uncommon, grizzly bear attacks do happen in the U.S. In the final reintroduction decision, the NPS and USFWS stressed public safety and minimizing human-wildlife conflict as priorities for the plan.

Grizzly bears in the North Cascades will be designated as a “nonessential experimental population,” meaning that they fall under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, which gives wildlife managers more flexibility to deter, relocate, or remove animals involved in conflict.

“It’s important to understand that, you know, the public has feelings and concerns about the issue related to moving bears, and the agencies have to listen to those and respond to the public,” said Servheen, who is currently an adjunct research associate professor at the University of Montana and board chair of the nonprofit Montana Wildlife Federation. “It’s important that the public realize that the agencies have the same concerns they do.”

He noted that grizzly bears and humans live in close proximity in other areas across British Columbia and the U.S. with relatively little conflict. Last year, grizzly bears killed 82 livestock animals in Montana out of the roughly 2.5 million cows in the state, representing a “minuscule amount of the livestock population,” Servheen said. Livestock owners in this area are reimbursed by the government for their grizzly-related losses.

The translocated grizzly bears in the North Cascades will be fitted with radio collars and tracked by wildlife officials. Overall, the success of the grizzly project will depend on human behaviour, according to Michael Proctor, an independent grizzly bear researcher in Canada, who has consulted with the National Park Service in the past.

“As you get a spectrum of bear personalities, you’ll of course get a spectrum of human personalities. So you have to try to listen to everybody and listen to their fears and worries and then try to work with them,” Proctor told me. “People across the North American West are coexisting with bears pretty well. I don’t mean to say it’s always super easy, but it’s very doable.”

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