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Grizzlies once thrived in these wilds. The U.S. may bring them back.

A grizzly bear and its cub walk near Yellowstone National Park's Pelican Creek in Wyoming in 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wilds of Washington state’s North Cascades — a vast expanse of glacier-capped peaks, rugged valleys and ancient forests — grizzly bears once thrived.

It’s been more than 25 years since one has been definitively spotted there, according to the National Park Service. But that could change with a new federal process, to begin Tuesday, that will examine whether to reintroduce grizzlies to the 9,800-square-mile ecosystem.

The effort comes two years after the Trump administration stopped a previous attempt to bring the endangered species back to the Cascades, an about-face that scuttled a half-decade of federal planning.

“This is an opportunity to make progress for wild places, to restore the last missing piece of the North Cascades,” said Graham Taylor, Northwest program manager for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “We came so close last time. I hope that we can really get it done this time.”

Ranchers and farmers have historically opposed reintroducing the bear, whose population was devastated by hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries, while environmental advocates say the grizzly’s recovery in Washington state is long overdue. The bear is a key part of the ecosystem and is culturally important to Indigenous people — and the North Cascades offers one of the best grizzly habitats in the contiguous United States, the National Park Service says.

A public online meeting on Tuesday will mark a “completely new” evaluation by the Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will examine options for bringing grizzly bears to the region, the agencies said in a statement Thursday.

From 2020: Conservation groups upset by North Cascades grizzly decision

It’s an effort with a decades-long history. The North Cascades is one of six ecosystems designated for grizzly recovery in the Lower 48, but it has been nearly 30 years since those recovery zones were established. While zones in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have grizzly populations, the land in Washington state has no known population of the bears, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This is a first step toward bringing balance back to the ecosystem and restoring a piece of the Pacific Northwest’s natural and cultural heritage,” Don Striker, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, said in the statement.

The restoration planning process was underway in 2020 when the Trump administration’s Interior Department terminated it, citing local opposition led by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who said farmers, ranchers and others did not want grizzlies in the region.

“The people who live and work in north central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced into the North Cascades,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement at the time, pledging to continue improving grizzly bear populations in other areas of the country.

At the time, constituents said they feared the bears would attack their cattle or jeopardize their safety, according to local news reports. At one 2019 meeting with Newhouse, about 450 people showed up, many to voice complaints, Northwest Public Broadcasting reported.

Newhouse, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Saturday, tweeted criticism Thursday of the government’s decision to reopen the issue, urging constituents to submit comments to the Park Service to help “put this misguided proposal to rest, once and for all.”

“The introduction of grizzly bears into the North Cascades would directly, and negatively, impact the people & communities I represent,” he wrote. “It is disappointing our voices are once again being ignored.”

The federal process will include four online video meetings in the next three weeks, all open to the public. Members of the public can submit comments until Dec. 14.

Stretching across a vast swath of north-central Washington, the North Cascades ecosystem includes alpine meadows and jagged mountains, fir forests and diverse habitats, and it continues into Canada, according to the North Cascades Institute. Covering the ancestral homeland of several Indigenous tribes and nations, it includes the North Cascades National Park, national forests and wilderness areas.

The North Cascades are good for bears for many reasons, including a plentiful supply of huckleberries, a highly diverse ecosystem, and very few roads, particularly in the core of the region, conservationists said. Grizzlies are “nature’s gardeners,” spreading nutrients and seeds and helping the ecosystem, said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest field representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.

“If you protect their welfare, then the welfare of the ecosystem tends to go along with them,” Callaghy said.

Because there are no grizzly populations close enough for bears to migrate from, bears will need to be brought in from other parts of the country. The evaluation process, known as an environmental-impact statement, will examine ways to do that.

The federal government will also consider a designation that would allow more flexibility for local land managers to deal with bears that might come into contact with humans. Advocates hope that could make opponents more comfortable this time around.

“That’s a big deal, because that really reduces what some people would call the burden of recovering endangered species,” Taylor said. “It is 100 percent a response to local concerns and questions about how this will work. … It’s a very clear sign that the government’s listening to local people.”

Conservationists say encounters between grizzlies and humans are rare in areas where the bears currently live.

“Our people and the grizzly bear coexisted for 10,000 years here before the first Europeans came into this area,” said Scott Schuyler, a policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “When you have a healthy ecosystem in place, the bear will be there, should be there, just as all the other creatures. Its role is very significant.”

If bears were reintroduced, the plan could bring in 5 to 10 bears every year, with the hope of reaching a population of 25 — a “minuscule” number for the ecosystem’s size, said Joe Scott, who directs work on grizzly bears at Conservation Northwest.

The process would be slow, partly because grizzly bears don’t reproduce quickly. It probably would then take about a century to reach a population of 200 or more bears. In the greater Yellowstone region, the grizzly population was estimated at 728 in 2019, according to the Park Service.

“We hope that we get to that point where federal managers and wildlife biologists can start moving bears in here. It’s not an easy process,” Scott said. “We’d be ecstatic if we had a reasonable expectation that we’d have 200 bears in this place 50, 60, 80 years from now.”