500 attend listening session on bear restoration
Most people attending a public meeting to comment the proposed restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades said the animal would not be welcome.
About 500 people showed up Monday evening (Oct. 7) at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds Agriplex to express their opinions on a plan developed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce grizzlies to the North Cascades. The goal would be to establish a population of about 200 bears within the next 100 years.
Grizzlies are believed to inhabit the North Cascades in Washington state but the evidence is scant. The last confirmed grizzly sighting in the area was in 1996.
Don Lundgren, who runs a ranch up East Chewuch Road, said his property was about 15 miles from a proposed grizzly release site.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to be right down at our ranch, attacking our cattle,” Lundgren said.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to be right down at our ranch, attacking our cattle.”
— Don Lundgren, commenter who runs a ranch on East Chewuch Road
Referring to the risks already posed by wolves and cougars, Lundgren said the valley didn’t need another predator.
“I can’t afford it,” he said.
Some people who didn’t have cattle to worry about feared for their lives.
“I know a lot of us are worried about our bottom lines,” said Sandee Freese, who owns an orchard near Omak with her husband Jim Freese. “I’m worried about walking in our orchard.”
Supporters of grizzly restoration, who were outnumbered more than three to one at the podium, attempted to allay fears while arguing for grizzlies’ rightful place in the North Cascades.
“What I’m hearing … is that grizzly bears are animals to be feared,” said Melanie Rowland, who pointed out that she lived inside the grizzly recovery area — unlike some other speakers. “The fact is, there is a minuscule number of people injured and killed by grizzly bears compared to any other risk you can imagine.”
“What I’m hearing … is that grizzly bears are animals to be feared. The fact is, there is a minuscule number of people injured and killed by grizzly bears compared to any other risk you can imagine.”
— Melanie Rowland, commenter who resides inside the grizzly recovery area
Support for restoration
People need to restore grizzlies to the North Cascades because they decimated the population to begin with, said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council, in an interview before the meeting.
“They were hunted and trapped and killed to virtual local extinction,” she said.
Minbashian acknowledged the bears would pose some problems for farms and people, but this challenge wasn’t insurmountable.
“What I really question is, when you’re saying, ‘No, I don’t want grizzlies here because it’s going to inconvenience me,’” she said. “There are strategies for living in grizzly country.”
For example, Minbashian said, orchardists can electrify the barriers already in place to keep deer out.
Grizzly bears subsist on a diet of mostly roots, berries and other plants. Supporters of the restoration say most of the plant species grizzlies consume are available in the North Cascades, and people’s concerns that the bears will enter the lowlands seeking food—particularly meat—are unfounded.
In fact, it’s extremely unlikely that someone would see a grizzly along, say, Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop if they were released in the area, said Joe Scott, the grizzly bear lead at Conservation Northwest.
“Grizzlies fastidiously avoid human things,” Scott said in an interview during the meeting. “They’re not like black bears.”
“Grizzlies fastidiously avoid human things, they’re not like black bears.”
—Joe Scott, grizzly bear lead at Conservation Northwest
The potential release area closest to populated areas in the Methow Valley would be in the wilderness about 10 miles northwest of Mazama, according to the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the restoration.
Officials are deciding whether to restore a grizzly population to a 6.1 million-acre North Cascades recovery zone that extends from the Canadian border south to Snoqualmie Pass, and from the Okanogan Highlands west to the Puget lowlands in eastern Whatcom and Skagit counties. Federal park and forest lands make up 85% of the recovery zone, which also includes the towns of Twisp, Winthrop, Mazama, Concrete, Marblemount and Darrington.
Dan Newhouse, the 4th District Republican congressman who pushed the federal agencies to hold Monday night’s meeting, mentioned a state law that bans the introduction of grizzlies from out of state as one of several reasons he opposes the restoration.
“I don’t think the science supports it. I don’t think it’s state law, and I don’t think the local communities want it,” Newhouse said. That last line prompted the loudest cheers of the evening.
Even with strong opinions held on both sides of the issue, the three-and-a-half hour meeting was civil. Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said in an interview at the meeting that his office had six personnel on hand. National Parks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife brought five of their own agents, Hawley said.
“We had initial reports there were plans of protest groups coming,” Hawley said, but any organized demonstration seemed less likely as the event drew closer.
In an interview the day after the meeting, Denise Shultz, public information officer for the Park Service, said that while one could note the number of comments for or against the proposal, making a comment was not equivalent to casting a vote.
“What we’re looking for are substantive comments,” Shultz said, on the strengths or weaknesses presented in the 200-page DEIS currently under review.
That said, Shultz noted that among the 126,000 comments received during the first round of public comment, “the overwhelming majority was leaning toward restoration.”
The comment period on the grizzly restoration plan is open through Oct. 24. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.