Unclear how decision to delay process came about
By Ann McCreary
A study of proposed reintroduction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades that was expected to be completed next year has apparently been put on hold, according to people involved in the project.
A final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades Ecosystem has been underway for two years. The project is led jointly by the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), both agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior.
A draft EIS was released last winter, followed by meetings in Winthrop and several other communities. Work on analyzing public comments on the draft EIS and completing the final study has been underway. Along with the final EIS, a record of decision was expected to be released next year, outlining the preferred approach to grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades Ecosystem, a vast area that includes almost 10,000 square miles in Washington state, including the Methow Valley.
However, at a meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in Missoula, Montana, last week, the superintendent of North Cascades National Park said work on completing the EIS is suspended.
“Karen Taylor-Goodrich, during her North Cascades report, indicated they were on hold with evaluations of the EIS,” said Jim Unsworth, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, who attended the meeting. Unsworth said Taylor-Goodrich told the committee that “leadership had asked her to slow down,” Unsworth said.
As superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Taylor-Goodrich has been a project leader for the study of potential reintroduction of grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem, which was once home to a sustainable population of native bears.
Told not to?
Members of the interagency committee briefly discussed the “stop-work” order after Taylor-Goodrich spoke, said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “The context was not that they didn’t have the money or staff to do this, but that they were told not to,” said Nickas, who was at the meeting.
Taylor-Goodrich and other staff of the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service did not return calls from the Methow Valley News requesting more information about the status of the EIS. Public information officials with both federal agencies said they were also not authorized to talk about the status of the grizzly reintroduction EIS and said they had been directed to refer any questions about the project to a press secretary at the U.S. Department of Interior.
In response to a request from the Methow Valley News for more information about the status of the EIS, Heather Swift, an Interior Department press secretary, emailed: “The Secretary [of Interior, Ryan Zinke] never directed a stop order on the EIS.” She did not provide any further information on the status of the project, despite several requests for more details about whether it had been suspended.
A government employee who has worked on the project said consultants who were hired to assist the federal agencies in preparing the final EIS told him that the consultants were directed to stop work on the study several months ago. The consultants said the EIS was on hold and further work by the consultants would not be funded, according to the employee, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Reluctance to talk
The statement by the North Cascades National Park superintendent about the EIS was first reported in the Missoulian newspaper after the interagency meeting. Chase Gunnell, communications director of Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, responded to the report with a statement urging completion of the EIS. About 127,000 comments were submitted on the draft EIS released last year, “the vast majority of them supportive of recovery,” said Gunnell.
“Equally frustrating is that the many years of science, public education and significant taxpayer dollars that have gone into grizzly bear recovery in our region are not being taken seriously by this administration,” Gunnell said.
Gunnell said his organization has had difficulty confirming the status of the EIS due to the reluctance of people who work for the federal agencies involved in the project to speak publicly about it. “We have been told off-the-record that there is not a stop-work order, but that it is on indefinite hold,” he said. “There is a lack of clarity about whether it’s an abandonment of the EIS or a pause.”
Gunnell said a slow-down or suspension of the work could be related to the fact that the two agencies leading the grizzly restoration project — the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service — are still without permanent directors almost a year after the Trump administration took office.
“It is our hope that this will move forward when some of the leadership positions at the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are filled,” Gunnell said.
An open house about the draft EIS was held in Twisp last February and drew many community members interested in learning about proposed approaches to restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades. Open houses were also held in seven other communities in the North Cascades area.
Historic grizzly territory
The 9,800 square miles of the North Cascades Ecosystem in Washington includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (including the Methow Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Another 3,800 square miles of the ecosystem is in British Columbia.
A vast wilderness landscape that spans the crest of the Cascade Range, the North Cascades Ecosystem is considered one of the most intact wildlands in the contiguous United States. Historical records show grizzlies roamed the area before they were decimated by hunting and loss of habitat over the past two centuries.
Research conducted in 2015 concluded the “carrying capacity” of the Washington portion of the ecosystem is approximately 280 bears, according to the draft EIS. There have been only four confirmed detections of grizzly bears in the ecosystem in the past decade, all of them in British Columbia, and none in the Washington portion of the ecosystem since 1996.
The draft EIS proposed restoring a self-sustaining population of 200 bears through capture and release of grizzly bears into the ecosystem. Three alternatives for achieving that goal are described in the draft EIS, and differ primarily in how quickly they would reach the goal of 200 bears. An expedited approach would reach the goal in about 25 years, and an incremental approach would achieve it within 60 – 100 years.
A map of proposed release areas in the draft EIS showed potential release areas in the North Cascades to the west and northwest of the Methow Valley.
In a project timeline published last winter, the National Park and Fish and Wildlife services anticipated completing a final EIS in the fall of 2018, and releasing a record of decision for the grizzly restoration plans this winter.