(The Center Square) – Two federal agencies overseeing a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears in Washington state’s North Cascades ecosystem have added two more in-person meetings to receive public comment.

A draft environmental impact statement that evaluates options for restoring the bears was recently released by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Additionally, Fish and Wildlife has proposed a rule that could provide additional management tools under a section of the Endangered Species Act.

Comments can be submitted at any time through Nov. 13, including a virtual online session scheduled Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 7-8:30 p.m.

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Four in-person public meetings are also planned, all from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dates and locations are:

Monday, Oct. 30, Omak, Okanogan County Fairgrounds;

Wednesday, Nov. 1, Newhalem, Currier Hall;

Thursday, Nov. 2, Darrington, Darrington High School auditorium;

Friday, Nov. 3, Winthrop, Winthrop Barn Auditorium.

The Darrington and Winthrop meetings were newly announced Friday.

The North Cascades Ecosystem involves about 9,800 square miles in north-central Washington and about 3,800 square miles in adjacent British Columbia. In Washington, 97% of the designated area is located on public lands. Federal officials say bears within the state have been hunted into extinction over the past century; the last confirmed grizzly bear sighting in the region was in 1996.

The animals are described as a “keystone species” which play “an outsized role in the ecosystem” by aerating soil with their digging, dispersing seeds, and providing cultural importance to some Indian tribes and First Nations. Currently, the largest grizzly populations are found in western Montana and Wyoming, with small numbers in northern Idaho and northeast Washington along the Canadian border.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose 4th Congressional District includes much of the ecosystem, opposes reintroduction of the bears, citing constituent concerns that the “apex predators” pose a threat to humans and livestock. Last week, Newhouse introduced a bill that, if enacted, could stop the federal agencies from proceeding with the draft EIS and ESA rule proposals.

Wildlife officials say grizzly bears are omnivorous but primarily feed on vegetation and tend to avoid humans. If any animals are transplanted into the region, they would be radio-collared for monitoring and released away from grazing areas.

Newhouse says a 1995 state law prohibits transplanting or introducing grizzly bears into Washington. But federal officials say the law only applies to any state efforts and that it directs the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to “fully participate in all discussions and negotiations with federal … agencies relating to grizzly bear management ….”

The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife began drafting an environmental impact statement on restoring grizzlies in the North Cascades in 2014 under the Obama Administration. Under the Trump Administration, the Department of Interior discontinued the effort in 2020, but it began again last November under the Biden Administration.

Information on the draft EIS, including ways to comment and access for Tuesday’s virtual meeting, can be found on the National Park Service website.

Fish and Wildlife’s proposed 10(j) management rule – to restore plants or animals in an isolated area while addressing landowner concerns – provides options for deterrence, relocation or removal of grizzly bears involved in conflict. It is listed at regulations.gov.

Additionally, “frequently asked questions” can be viewed online about the draft EIS and proposed 10(j) rule.

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Gallery Credit: AJ Brewster

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