A conservation organization has sued the Trump administration for failing to release public records about its decision to terminate plans to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in federal court on July 21, accusing the Trump administration of violating federal law by failing to provide information that the Center requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Center made a request for information in December 2017 to the Department of the Interior, the agency overseeing the study of grizzly restoration. “Despite strict deadlines requiring a timely response, the Department of the Interior has failed to disclose any of the requested records,” according to the suit.
An environmental study on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem, a 9,800-square-mile area that includes North Cascades National Park, has been underway for six years. It came to an abrupt end last month when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said further action on grizzly restoration was halted. He made the announcement during a meeting in Omak on July 7, saying residents of North Central Washington don’t want the bears restored to the North Cascades.
“The Trump administration aims to hide the facts about its cancellation of this popular program,” said Sophia Ressler, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization.
“The secrecy surrounding this issue has persisted for years, and it’s mind-boggling that the Interior Department has taken its anti-wildlife agenda to this level,” Ressler said. “Our suit aims to get to the bottom of the administration’s distorted priorities on grizzlies and other imperiled species.”
Reversed, and reversed
The Center for Biological Diversity requested information for records related to statements by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about terminating a proposal to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades in 2017. The next year, Zinke reversed course and announced the environmental analysis of the grizzly restoration proposal would move forward.
Zinke’s successor, Bernhardt, once again terminated the program with his announcement this month, and the Trump administration made it official with a notice in the Federal Register on July 10.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., addresses the Interior Department’s failure to respond to the Center for Biodiversity’s request for information. Attorneys representing Interior must respond within 30 days.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades Ecosystem was released in January 2017. The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the lead agencies for the EIS, held a number of public meetings during the public review and comment period and conducted in numerous outreach activities. The agencies provided an additional public review and comment period on the Draft EIS from July to October 2019. The environmental review process is now terminated.
The environmental study generated more than 143,000 public comments, with approximately 130,000 labeled as favoring grizzly restoration, according to information obtained from the lead agencies by Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based conservation organization.
The now-shelved EIS 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, which stretches from north-central Washington into 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.