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Grizzly bears are coming back to Washington after no sightings in almost 20 years


Grizzly bears haven't been seen in the North Cascades of Washington state in nearly 20 years, but that could soon change. Federal officials say they're going to reintroduce grizzlies to that national park. John Ryan from member station KUOW in Seattle reports.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Federal biologists plan to airlift up to seven grizzlies into the park each summer in the coming decade. The decision, announced Thursday, comes after a half-century of planning and debate over the magnificent but intimidating creatures. Thousands of people have weighed in on the federal plan to bring grizzlies back to the mountainous spine of Washington. Many commenters highlighted the ecological importance of the big bears. But people living near the North Cascades were more likely to emphasize the potential danger of an animal that can weigh 500 pounds and run 35 miles an hour. Andy Hover is a county commissioner and farmer in Winthrop in the Cascade foothills. He says he's concerned about the safety of hikers and farmers.

ANDY HOVER: We live with black bears all the time. Grizzly bears are just different creatures, right? I mean, if they get upset and you're in their territory, they're going to want to come at you.

RYAN: But it's not just urban nature lovers or wildlife biologists who want to see the grizzlies return. Scott Schuyler is an elder and policy representative with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.

SCOTT SCHUYLER: We were forcibly removed from our ancestral area, so that unique connection that we have with not only the bears, but other creatures, you know, puts us in this position that we're going to always speak and defend these creatures.

RYAN: Not all local tribes welcome the bears.

NINO MALTOS II: By reintroducing these, you're creating a new top of the food chain.

RYAN: Nino Maltos II is chairman of the neighboring Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. He says he's concerned about the safety of tribal members out fishing for salmon or gathering berries.

MALTOS: As Native tribes, you know, we are generally in favor of reintroducing certain species, but it's not some small, cute furry creature. We're worried of the aftermath of releasing these animals that haven't been here for so long.

RYAN: Andrew LaValle with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the safety risks are small if humans avoid provoking grizzlies.

ANDREW LAVALLE: Other ecosystems show us that it can be done, right? Millions of people recreate in the Rocky Mountains every single year with far greater numbers of grizzly bears than we would ever see in the Cascades.

RYAN: To keep people safe, the Cascades' grizzlies aren't getting all the same protections that endangered species usually do. Managers will have the flexibility to relocate or kill problem bears.

For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF J^P^N'S "GETOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ryan
Year started with KUOW: 2009