Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

An environmental impact statement is being prepared on the grizzly relocation plan.

Relocating bears not compatible with local economy, they say

By Ann McCreary

Transplanting grizzly bears into the North Cascades would threaten the “local economy, customs and culture” of Okanogan County, county commissioners said in a letter to federal officials who are preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on a grizzly bear restoration plan.

The letter was written in response to a request from the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which are preparing a final EIS on the proposal to transplant grizzly bears into the North Cascades. The agencies asked the county to provide information on “whether any conflicts exist between the county’s land use plans and policies” and the proposed approaches for reintroducing grizzlies detailed in a draft EIS.

Commissioners outlined numerous objections to the idea of restoring bears in the North Cascades, and found fault with the way the draft EIS has been prepared by the federal agencies leading the project. The EIS proposes three alternatives for re-establishing a population of 200 grizzly bears in their historic habitat in the North Cascades ecosystem, which includes 9,800 square miles in Washington State.

The area includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (including the Methow Valley Ranger District), North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

A large part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest — more than 1.5 million acres — lies within Okanogan County boundaries. That federal land plays an important role in the county’s economy and culture, commissioners said in the letter sent last month.

“The county’s comprehensive plan recognizes the importance agriculture and other natural resource-based industries such as mining, timber harvest, hunting and fishing has for our local economy, customs and culture,” said the letter signed by commissioners Jim DeTro, Chris Branch and Andy Hover.

“As the land held in trust by the federal government is the site of much of our resource-based activities, the release of grizzly bears into these areas will have a profound impact on those activities,” commissioners said, predicting “inevitable conflicts … and loss of economic activity” if grizzly bears become re-established in the North Cascades.

Commissioners questioned whether the area proposed for relocation of the grizzlies can provide an adequate food source, and said the bears might “wander into other uninhabited areas in search of food,” including areas where livestock are grazed. That scenario could result in bears preying on livestock and potentially result in “pressure to eliminate grazing on public land.”

They envisioned a similar result with “pressure to curtail timber harvest” if bears move out of the national park and wilderness areas. Similarly, commissioners predicted the county’s recreational tourism industry could suffer. “As the range for the grizzly bears expands into areas used by people for recreational activities the likelihood of bear/human conflict increases,” commissioners said.

Not consistent

Because the county comprehensive plan “designates most of the federal land as rural resource/recreation land, which support timber, mining, agriculture and recreation/tourism activities … the grizzly bear relocation program is not consistent with our local plans,” the letter said.

The letter sent in May referenced correspondence from the county sent last spring after release of the draft EIS. In those letters, commissioners observed that the federal agencies had not prepared a “critical habitat analysis,” which commissioners said is required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Lack of a critical habitat analysis means the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing, and consequently the restoration plan, is “fatally flawed,” according to commissioners.

Critical habitats are specific geographic areas that contain features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species. The ESA requires critical habitat designation when “prudent and determinable.”

Critical habitat designation isn’t needed in this case, however, said Gregg Kurz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wenatchee. The North Cascades grizzly recovery plan is based on a national plan written in 1993 that identified six “recovery zones” in the United States, including the North Cascades Ecosystem, said Kurz, who is working on the final EIS. The North Cascades Ecosystem is a vast wilderness landscape that spans the crest of the Cascade Range and comprises one of the most intact wildlands in the contiguous United States.

“We have the various recovery zones identified in the restoration plan. They provide the same habitat and conservation benefits as a critical habitat designation would. We don’t feel there’s a need to go through the regulatory process” of designating critical habitat, Kurz said. “We’ve had similar questions from the public,” and those questions will be addressed in the final EIS, he said.

Commissioners asserted that the proposal to capture bears elsewhere and release them in Washington conflicts with a state law that prevents Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife from reintroducing grizzly bears from outside Washington. However, the draft EIS states that the Washington law applies only to the state wildlife agency and “does not purport to bind federal agencies … because grizzly bear reintroduction would occur on federal lands” administered by the National Park Service or Forest Service.

Problem bears?

Commissioners also speculated that bears captured from other areas for transplant into Washington would “likely” be problem bears. “We suspect the easiest animals to relocate will be bears that have already proven troublesome in other areas due to their acclimation to humans,” commissioners wrote. Transferring “a problem from one location to another” would create potential for conflict and injury to people and livestock, they said.

The draft EIS, however, addresses that issue specifically and describes criteria for the bears that would be translocated, Kurz said. “Grizzly bears that would be considered optimal candidates for capture and release would be independent subadults between 2 and 5 years of age that had not yet reproduced and had exhibited no history of human conflict,” the draft EIS said.  Kurz said subadult bears would be selected because they are more likely to remain in the area after relocation.

The grizzly bears brought to the NCE would likely come from northwestern Montana or south-central British Columbia, according to the draft EIS. The release sites would be located on national park or forest service lands and would be selected based on habitat criteria, and 60-80 percent of the bears would be females, the document said.

A map of proposed release areas in the draft EIS shows potential release areas in the North Cascades to the west and northwest of the Methow Valley. Proposed staging areas listed in the draft EIS are Eight Mile (Billy Goat), Hozomeen, Swamp Creek Pit, Green Mountain and West Fork Methow.

Each of the three action alternatives described in the draft EIS would seek to restore a “self-sustaining population of 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears” into the North Cascades. The alternatives differ primarily in how quickly the desired population of bears would be reached. The document also includes a required “no action” alternative that would maintain the status quo.

The North Cascades grizzly recovery study began in 2014 under the Obama administration, with an announced goal of completion in 2017. A draft EIS was completed in early 2017 and numerous public meetings were held around the region, including one in Winthrop in February. More than 126,000 comments and correspondence have been received on the draft EIS.

However, work on the project came to a standstill in mid-2017 when Trump administration officials, without clear explanation, halted work. In March this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke jump-started the process when he announced his support for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades Ecosystem during a press conference at the North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley.

Zinke drew praise from wildlife advocates and criticism from cattlemen when he said he was “confident” that grizzlies could be successfully reintroduced in the North Cascades. “I have always loved grizzlies,” Zinke said.

“We’re on a timeline to have the final EIS and record of decision by the end of October,” Kurz said last week.