‘Incredible’ news for bears and wild horses as US shifts preservation plans | National parks

Wildlife advocates are celebrating “incredible” news for the preservation of threatened bears, and a herd of historically significant wild horses, in separate north-western and upper midwestern national parks.

In North Dakota, the National Parks Service (NPS) has dropped a plan that would have seen about 200 wild horses, descended from those belonging to Native American tribes who fought the 1876 Great Sioux war, rounded up and removed from Theodore Roosevelt national park.

The scheme would have stripped the park of a cultural “emblem” of the future 26th US president’s time as a cattle rancher and hunter in the Dakota territory in the late 19th century, said the Republican North Dakota senator John Hoeven, who helped secure their preservation.

Meanwhile, in Washington, NPS has partnered with US Fish and Wildlife on a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem. The threatened species has not been seen in the area for more than a quarter-century.

Between three and seven bears will be released into the park each year in the groundbreaking project that could last up to a decade, with an ultimate aim of building back a healthy population of about 200 bears within six to 10 decades.

“Our national parks are spectacular places that people expect to be set aside for wildlife, they expect wildlife to be there,” said Graham Taylor, north-west program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

“It’s why we have multiple wilderness areas in the North Cascades, it’s why we have big pristine national parks. They are supposed to be managed to protect their resources in perpetuity, and grizzly bears, all wildlife, are a resource of the parks.

“For one generation to have wildlife, and the next generation not, is not how they’re supposed to be managed, so this really is the park service following their mission by protecting and trying to restore lost resources.”

The dropping of the NPS plan to eliminate wild horses from the North Dakota park, and reverting to a pre-existing management plan for a “healthy herd”, follows a significant public backlash to its 2022 “livestock review”.

The animals, directly descended from those ridden by Sioux chiefs in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, had “the potential to damage fences used for wildlife management, trample or overgraze vegetation used by native wildlife species, contribute to erosion and soil-related impacts … and compete for food and water resources”, an environmental assessment found.

Hoeven, and North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, became powerful allies to the preservation campaign, with the senator adding a funding provision to the 2024 interior and environment budget bill signed by Joe Biden.

“These wild horses are emblematic of President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota, a formative experience that shaped his presidency and lasting legacy,” Hoeven said in a statement.

“Given the broad public support for maintaining the wild horses, as well as the measure we passed through Congress, this is the right call by NPS.”

Similar positive public sentiment helped drive the approval of the plan for grizzly bears in Washington, campaigners say. The proposal was first floated in 1996, the last time there was evidence of the species in the 790 sq miles national park, dropped by the administration of Donald Trump, and revived when Biden took office in 2021.

“This is incredible news,” said Kathleen Callaghy, north-west representative for Defenders of Wildlife’s species conservation and coexistence department.

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“The North Cascades is one of the most incredibly intact wild lands in the US and the grizzly bear is last major mammal missing from that ecosystem, so we’d be restoring something to almost as close as we can make it to how it used to be, barring our presence.”

She said human encounters with the bears, however, were unlikely.

“It’s natural to be worried about an apex predator living potentially near humans, but people mostly misunderstand how incredibly large the North Cascades is, and how much of that land is not settled,” she said.

“We’ve seen in Montana and other areas, in Yellowstone, that bears can coexist perfectly well with humans as long as everyone is taking sensible precautions like removing garbage and carrying bear spray during hikes.

“But three to seven bears per year over all those square miles, your chances of being a hiker and encountering one are not very high.”

Native American tribes also helped push the process forward. Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit tribe, said its members “celebrate this decision for the great bear, the environment, and everyone who desires a return to a healthy Indigenous ecosystem.

“We urge the agencies to move forward and put paws on the ground so the recovery may begin,” he said.

Taylor, of the NPCA, said the reintroduction process would face challenges. “Things happen, there’s no guarantee. Wildlife restoration and rewilding are tough, and there are still humans out there and other hazards,” he said.

“So identifying some good bears to bring is part of it. We don’t want bears that have any history of conflict, we’re not taking other regions’ conflict bears and moving them here. We want well-behaved, young and mostly female bears that will drive the population and tend not to migrate very far.”

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