By AMY NILE | The Daily Herald

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — There's an effort under way to help ensure grizzly bears don't become extinct in the North Cascades.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with other agencies on a plan to bring grizzly bears back to this part of their natural range. That includes many of Snohomish County's prominent peaks, such as Mount Pilchuck and Whitehorse Mountain.

The grizzly bear restoration effort comes 40 years after the animals were listed in 1975 under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in the lower 48 states.

“It's been a long time since we've had a robust grizzly bear population,” said Ann Froschauer, a spokeswoman for the Washington office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By 1980, Washington listed the grizzly bear as an endangered species. The state boasts about 9,800 square miles of potential habitat for the animal in the North Cascades ecosystem, which is one of six areas outlined in the federal grizzly bear recovery plan.

Canada also is taking measures to save grizzlies. About 3,800 square miles of the North Cascades ecosystem is in British Columbia.

Though U.S. grizzly bear populations have been dwindling for decades, Froschauer said, money has recently become available to study the environmental effects of returning the animals to the North Cascades. The National Park Service is providing most of the $550,000 for that work, which is expected to take about three years.

Next month, the state and federal agencies involved are holding a series of public meetings in six cities around the state.

Input gathered at the meetings, which are set from March 3 to 11, will help determine whether the agencies move grizzly bears captured elsewhere into the North Cascades to reproduce, explore other ways of returning the animals to the area or take no action.

“We haven't made any decisions,” Froschauer said. “We're open to hearing from people.” Written comments can also be left at the National Park Service website.

The agencies plan to analyze any concerns people bring up and include their ideas in an environmental impact statement for the North Cascades grizzly bear recovery plan. Froschauer said it is expected to address issues such as public safety, livestock depredation, farm crops, hunting, fishing, recreation and businesses that could potentially be affected by the effort.

The numbers of the animals have continued to shrink since settlers killed thousands of grizzly bears in the North Cascades from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

“It's really shocking to see how many bears were killed for their pelts,” Froschauer said. “The fur trade was a big part of that.”

Now, there might be a small number of grizzly bears living in the North Cascades. It is estimated that fewer than 20 might live south of the Canadian border. In British Columbia, there are likely less than 30.

Snohomish County boasts the most recent biologist-confirmed grizzly bear sighting in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades. It was spotted in 1996 south of Glacier Peak.

Returning the grizzlies would help restore the natural ecosystem of the North Cascades. It is a rare opportunity to bring back all of the native animals to an area, said Chris Servheen, the coordinator for grizzly bear recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The effect on the environment from returning grizzly bears to the North Cascades is expected to be minimal, Servheen said. Recovery is expected to go slowly because the bears usually have two cubs every three years. In Idaho, a study of a similar ecosystem estimated that it would take 50 to 125 years to establish a population of grizzly bears that could live and reproduce without help from humans.

Servheen, a Montana-based biologist, said people will rarely come into contact with the bears because the animals like to live in remote areas.

“Most people have no conflict with bears,” he said.

The return of the bears is not expected to change much for people using the wilderness for recreation. Common-sense rules, such as being aware of surroundings, staying in groups and keeping a clean camp, will apply, Servheen said.

Grizzly bears typically live for about 20 years. They prefer solitude, except to mate and rear cubs. They like to have lots of space and roam different types of terrain as the seasons change, Servheen said. They usually hibernate from early November to the beginning of April.

In the North Cascades, grizzly bears eat more than 250 types of food, including grass, berries, insects and the meat of dead animals. They are not good hunters, Servheen said.

“They're very inefficient predators,” he said.

Most animals can outrun them, as female grizzlies grow to about 350 pounds. The males weigh about 450 pounds, Servheen said.

Because they eat mostly vegetation and carrion, Servheen said, their return to the North Cascades would have little effect on other animals. Bears rarely have conflict with livestock but those that did would be moved, he said.

Without putting the grizzly bear recovery plan in place, Servheen said, there's little chance the animals would repopulate on their own. They don't tend to travel far or take over unoccupied territory.

As the recovery plan is studied, scientists will identify specific targets for the grizzly bear to be removed from the list of threatened species. Servheen estimates that there would need to be at least 300 grizzly bears in the North Cascades for that to happen.

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Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com