Impact statement on restoration plans due out by early fall

By Ann McCreary

A majority of registered voters in Washington support efforts to help grizzly bears recover in the North Cascades, according to a survey commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife.

The survey conducted in May found that 80 percent of registered voters in the state support efforts to help restore the declining population of grizzlies.

Voters in areas surrounding the North Cascades Ecosystem where grizzly recovery efforts would take place (Okanogan, Chelan, Skagit, Snohomish, Kittitas and Whatcom counties) support recovery efforts by 86 percent, compared to 13 percent who oppose grizzly recovery, according to survey results.

With a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) expected by early fall on grizzly bear restoration, “we wanted an updated view” of public sentiment on the issue, said Elizabeth Ruther, a biologist and Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

“Voters in Washington value grizzly bears as a vital part of our natural heritage and strongly back science-based efforts to help the population in the North Cascades to recover,” Ruther said.

“The poll results reinforce that Washington residents … will do what it takes to ensure this iconic species doesn’t die out in our lifetime,” she said.

Ruther said release of the survey coincides with announcement of a newly formed coalition called “Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear.” The coalition includes conservation organizations, scientists, businesses, tribal nations and citizens.

The survey was conducted by Tulchin Research, a polling and consulting firm based in San Francisco. Tulchin described its method as “a scientific telephone survey among a representative sample of 600 registered voters in the state of Washington.”

Voters were asked to respond to several statements about grizzly bears and proposals to help restore the grizzly population in the North Cascades. Among the results:

• Nine out of 10 voters (91 percent) agreed that grizzly bears are a “vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage;” 7 percent disagreed.

• 85 percent agreed that grizzly recovery efforts in the North Cascades “should be science-based and led by expert biologists;” 11 percent disagreed.

• 81 percent agreed that the state of Washington “should make every effort to help grizzly bears recover and prevent their disappearance;” 16 percent disagreed.

An analysis of responses by political party, gender, age and region showed overall support for “efforts to help the declining population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades recover.”

Support was expressed by 89 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Independents; 81 percent of men, 79 percent of women; 84 percent of voters 18–54 years old, and 75 percent of voters 55 years or older.

By region, 66 percent of voters in the Spokane area were supportive, 23 percent opposed; Yakima/Tri-Cities area — 90 percent in support, 10 percent opposed; King County — 83 percent in support, 10 percent opposed; Seattle-Tacoma suburbs — 83 percent in support, 11 percent opposed; Vancouver area — 55 percent in support, 20 percent opposed.

Voters in the poll agreed that “it is reasonable to ask outdoor recreationists in the North Cascades to take common sense precautions to minimize conflict with bears in their natural habitat,” with 93 percent supporting the statement.

Among people who participate in different types of outdoor recreation, 79 percent supported grizzly bear recovery effects. Broken down into specific recreation groups, 76 percent of people who hunt and fish, 80 percent of hikers and 77 percent of campers supported recovery efforts.

The poll also looked at political implications of the grizzly recovery issue. Asked whether voters would be “more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate for office who supports grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades,” 57 percent said they would be more likely and 18 percent said they would be less likely.

The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched formal planning for grizzly restoration in the North Cascades last year, when they began a three-year EIS process.

The environmental analysis will determine alternative actions that could be taken to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem, a 9,800-square-mile area in North Central Washington and British Columbia.

The United States portion includes the North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest (which includes the Methow Ranger District) and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Alternatives for grizzly recovery range from taking no action (status quo) to active restoration, including moving grizzly bears from other populations in the U.S. or Canada to the North Cascades Ecosystem.

During a public comment period that began the EIS process last year, comments favoring restoration of grizzly bears outnumbered those opposing the idea by more than five to one.

The draft EIS to be released this fall will describe alternatives for restoring a healthy grizzly bear population to the North Cascades. Another public comment period will follow the release of the draft EIS.

The project timeline calls for release of a final plan in the spring of 2017 and a record of decision in the summer of 2017.

Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in the lower 48 states in 1975, and listed as endangered by Washington state in 1980.

The North Cascades Ecosystem is one of the largest contiguous blocks of wild public land remaining in the lower 48 states, and was designated one of five national Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones in 1997.

Some grizzly bears have been sighted in the Canadian portion of the ecosystem, but no verified sightings have occurred in the U.S. portion since 1996, according to Bill Gaines, a grizzly researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.

The newly formed Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear organization is a collaborative effort of Conservation Northwest, National Parks Conservation Association, Woodland Park Zoo, Defenders of Wildlife, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, and the National Wildlife Federation. More information is available at www.northcascadesgrizzly.org.