Critics fault process, transparency of action
A six-year environmental study on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades came to an abrupt end on Tuesday (July 7) with an announcement by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior at a meeting in Omak.
Secretary David Bernhardt said further action on grizzly restoration was halted. He made the announcement at a meeting of “stakeholders” in Omak hosted by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who has opposed plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to North Cascades ecosystem, which includes North Cascades National Park.
Bernhardt said his agency has decided to shelve a study of grizzly restoration in North Cascades. “The Trump Administration is committed to being a good neighbor, and the people who live and work in north-central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears,” Bernhardt said in a press release.
“Grizzly bears are not in danger of extinction, and Interior will continue to build on its conservation successes in managing healthy grizzly bear populations across their existing range,” he said.
The announcement came as a surprise to conservationists who have been actively involved in grizzly bear restoration planning, but were not included among the stakeholders invited to the meeting.
“We just heard about his, which is a surprise because we’ve been very involved in the process,” said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which has advocated for grizzly restoration in the North Cascades.
“This enormously disappointing decision is the latest flip-flop away from conservation by this administration, which under [former Interior] Secretary Ryan Zinke supported grizzly recovery efforts,” Smith said. “This decision did not follow the usual process that the U.S. Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have followed.” Those are the agencies that led the Environmental Impact Statement process on grizzly recovery in the North Cascades.
“This decision halts it for what seem to be political reasons, not science, popular opinion and the law,” Smith said.
Departure from process
“We’re concerned about the lack of transparency that led to this decision, and its departure from the years-long public process that consistently documented strong support for careful grizzly bear restoration led by science and community input,” said Chase Gunnell, communications director of Conservation Northwest. “For this decision to be made so abruptly, with so little transparency, is very concerning.”
Tuesday’s meeting hosted by Newhouse included county commissioners from Okanogan, Douglas, Chelan and Skagit counties, Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association representatives, and state legislators.
Newhouse hailed the decision to scrap further plans for grizzly reintroduction. “Homeowners, farmers, ranchers and small business owners in our rural communities were loud and clear. We do not want grizzly bears in north-central Washington,” he said.
That’s just not true, said Jasmine Minbashian, executive director of Methow Valley Citizens Council. “Newhouse is ignoring a large majority of his constituents who support grizzly bear recovery, many of whom live in the heart of the proposed recovery area. Instead, he is cutting backroom deals with a corrupt administration, serving only special interests,” she said.
Gunnell said the environmental study of proposed grizzly restoration has involved extensive public outreach over the past six years, including informational meetings, public hearings and more than 143,000 public comments. Conservation Northwest obtained the comments last year through a Freedom of Information Act request, and “found there were approximately 130,000 that were labeled as favorable,” Gunnell said.
“Despite what Rep. Dan Newhouse has claimed, many local residents of Okanogan County support grizzly bear restoration,” Gunnell said.
Among the constituencies supporting grizzly restoration are the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) which submitted comments stating the bears “once roamed all of the UCUT traditional homelands and have cultural and spiritual importance.” The UCUT represents the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, Kalispell Tribe, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
A survey of registered Washington voters conducted in 2016 found that 80 percent supported efforts to help grizzly bears recover in the North Cascades. Voters in areas surrounding the North Cascades Ecosystem where grizzly recovery efforts would take place supported recovery efforts by 86 percent, compared to 13 percent who oppose grizzly recovery, according to a survey commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife.
The now-shelved Environmental Impact Statement outlined three alternatives to restore a “self-sustaining population of 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the North Cascades Ecosystem,” a 9,800-square-mile area in North Central Washington and British Columbia. It was designated one of five national grizzly bear recovery zones in 1997, and the only potential recovery area outside of the Rocky Mountains.
The United States portion of the ecosystem 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.
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. Although there are grizzly bear populations north of the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia, there is no evidence that they will migrate south to naturally re-establish a grizzly population in the North Cascades, Gunnell said.
Bears from British Columbia would have to traverse populated areas and the Trans-Canada Highway to reach the North Cascades, and the nearest population of bears in Canada is so small that the animals have no reason to disperse south in search of new territory, Gunnell said. “We dispute any claims that natural recovery will happen,” he said.
“When you think of future generations, this is one of the few places where grizzly bears can be recovered,” Smith said. His organization, the National Parks Conservation Association, works to restore native wildlife in national parks.
“In the North Cascades you see wolverines coming back, wolves, fishers, and we’re trying to restore salmon. The grizzly bear can be part of that,” Smith said. Grizzly bears were listed in 1975 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states, and listed as endangered by Washington state in 1980.
“We’re confident this is not the last word on grizzly bears in the North Cascades,” Gunnell said. “We believe grizzly bears will eventually be restored to the wild backcountry of the North Cascades, their home for thousands of years.”
“Action is legally required under the Endangered Species Act and federal grizzly bear recovery plans, and public support for restoring this native species remains strong,” Gunnell said. “We’re considering the next steps.”