Local public meeting was animated but civil
The idea of restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades brings up strong emotions, which were evident among speakers at a packed house in the Winthrop Barn on Friday night (Nov. 3).
A public meeting was held to gather comments and provide information on a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem, a 9,800-square-mile area in Washington, which includes the Methow Valley, that once supported a healthy population of grizzlies before they were hunted into extinction.
Some speakers warned of grizzly bears “coming down” from the mountains and attacking crops, animals and humans in populated areas like Twisp and Winthrop.
Other speakers said risks posed by grizzlies are greatly exaggerated, and said many communities in the West have shown it’s possible to co-exist with the bears.
The meeting in Winthrop was the fourth and final public meeting hosted around region by the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the two agencies leading planning for restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
The meetings gave the public an opportunity to comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that details options for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades. The public is also asked to comment on a proposed federal rule that gives agencies more flexibility in managing grizzly bears. A 45-day comment period on the draft EIS and proposed rule continues until midnight Nov. 13.
“This is a really emotional topic. People are passionate about it,”said Don Striker, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, which is within the North Cascades Ecosystem.
“There is a misrepresentation that Washington, D.C., is dictating what we are doing out here, and our minds are made up. That is not true,” Striker said in a brief statement before the session was opened to public comment.
Some speakers questioned why the grizzly restoration planning process has gone on for so long. “Why are we going through this again?” one person asked.
In fact, a similar public meeting on grizzly restoration in the North Cascades was held at the Winthrop Barn six years ago, in 2017.
Planning for grizzly recovery began decades ago, after the bears were federally listed in 1975 as threatened in the lower 48 states. In 1980, they were listed as endangered by Washington State. A National Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan was approved by FWS in 1982, and in 1997 the North Cascades Ecosystem, identified as one of six grizzly recovery areas in the nation, was included in a national recovery plan.
Federal planning for grizzly recovery in the North Cascades Ecosystem began in 2014, when NPS and FWS began drafting an EIS. That draft EIS was the subject of the meeting held in Winthrop six years ago.
Then in 2020, the Trump administration abruptly canceled further work on grizzly restoration planning and the draft EIS was shelved. Last fall, under the Biden administration, federal agencies restarted the process, resulting in the draft EIS that is now under consideration.
The Winthrop meeting followed sessions in Okanogan on Oct. 30, Newhalem on Nov. 1 and Darrington on Nov. 2. According to people who attended the Okanogan meeting, the session was loud and contentious, with some people directing angry and insulting comments at the federal parks and wildlife staff members who were at the meeting.
The meetings were led by a third-party facilitator, who opened the public comment in Winthrop by urging audience members to be respectful of each other, which they were. Nearly every speaker, regardless of their position on grizzly restoration, received a polite round of applause.
Dwight Filer of Twisp said he attended the Okanogan meeting, and began his comments in Winthrop with an apology to the parks and wildlife staff for the way the Okanogan crowd behaved. He said he was proud that the Methow Valley “can put on such a respectful meeting.”
In addition to public comment, the meetings offered people the option of sitting down privately with a stenographer to get their comments on record.
The draft EIS proposes restoring a self-sustaining population of 200 grizzly bears by capturing bears in other parts of the U.S. and Canada and releasing them in the North Cascades Ecosystem. The plan calls for releasing three to seven bears each year over a period of five to 10 years, with a goal of establishing an initial population of 25 grizzly bears. Through reproduction, the population goal of 200 bears could be achieved in 60-100 years.
The agencies’ “preferred action” includes special designation for the bears under the federal Endangered Species Act, called a “10(j) experimental population.” That’s a designation for a group of threatened or endangered species that are restored to habitat where the species does not currently exist and is geographically isolated from other populations.
The experimental population designation, or 10(j) rule, is intended to reduce public concerns that reintroducing a species could result in restrictions on the use of private, tribal, or public land. The designation would provide more flexibility in managing grizzlies in and around the North Cascades Ecosystem, including actions like deterrence, relocation or lethal removal of the bears.
Under the proposed experimental population approach, the entire state of Washington would be divided into three “management zones,” with the exception of part of northeastern Washington, where some grizzlies are believed to have dispersed from a grizzly recovery zone in the Selkirk Mountains area. Options for managing grizzlies and human-bear conflicts would differ in each zone.
The Methow Valley lies within the primary grizzly recovery zone (Zone 1) in the north central part of Washington. This management zone includes all designated wilderness within the North Cascades Ecosystem, “and would serve as core habitat for survival, reproduction and dispersal,” according to the draft EIS.
Zone 1 includes the portion of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest north of Interstate 90 and west of State Route 97. It also includes the North Cascades National Park and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
This zone would have the strongest protections for grizzly bears on federal lands, allowing grizzly bears to be killed only self-defense or defense of others, or through otherwise lawful activities such as timber harvest, road construction or recreation, or when associated with research and recovery actions. Intentional deterrence that doesn’t harm or kill bears would be permitted, and bears could be relocated, deterred or lethally removed by federal, state or tribal authorities for recovery purposes.
Management Zone 2 is meant to accommodate natural movement or dispersal by grizzly bears from the primary recovery area. It includes federal lands mostly south of the primary recovery zone and includes the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest south of Interstate 90 and east of State Route 97, as well as the Colville National Forest, Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park.
Management of bears in this zone would allow relocation of bears after a conflict, and conditional lethal removal by livestock owners if depredation by a grizzly is confirmed.
Management Zone 3 includes the rest of the state — private, state and local lands described as “areas that may be incompatible with grizzly bear presence due to high levels of private land ownership and associated development.” Management options in these areas are expanded to include pre-emptive actions, including authorized killing of bears, to prevent conflict.
Pro and con
About 50 people signed up to speak at the Barn meeting. Each speaker was allotted two minutes, and speakers were not required to identify themselves.
People in favor of the restoration proposal talked about communities in the West that have lived with grizzlies successfully, and about the opportunity to restore a species to its historical habitat and repair previous harm done by humans. They spoke in support of the management options offered by the 10(j) rule.
Among the comments in support were:
• “I have family in Montana. I have seen first-hand how communities are living, recreating and thriving alongside grizzly bears.”
• While hiking in areas with grizzly bears, “I got used to carrying bear spray and got used to being more aware of my surroundings, and I think that’s a good thing. I think we can make more space for them (grizzlies) even if it means adjusting our own habits.”
• “We are the only species on the planet that can eliminate or preserve other species … we can exercise our power to restore bears.”
• “With the 10(j) rule, we will have protections that don’t exist in other areas (of the country) with higher bear and human populations.”
• Risks posed by grizzlies to humans and livestock are exaggerated. Grizzlies primarily eat plants and insects. People face greater risks from car collisions with deer.
• Bears are part of a wild natural landscape. “I would like my descendants, future generations, to see the wilderness.”
• The proposed reintroduction is a “conservative plan,” which may take 100 years to reach the population goal of 200 bears.
• “The North Cascades is big enough, wild enough. There’s enough food there for a viable population. Studies show grizzly bears won’t repopulate (in the North Cascades Ecosystem) on their own.”
Common concerns expressed by speakers against grizzly restoration were perceived threats to property, including crops and livestock, and to human safety. Speakers questioned whether the habitat in the North Cascades Ecosystem could sustain grizzly bears, and whether the agencies could adequately manage the species.
Some of the comments in opposition to restoration included:
• “The bears will mess with farmers and ranchers,” said a rancher from Loomis who runs cows near Winthrop. “I don’t see how we’re going to avoid human conflict.”
• “Just because the 10(j) rule is in their toolbox, they don’t have to use it.”
• “The agencies are not managing existing species well. Why would I expect them to manage grizzly bears? The food they will be eating will be hikers, bikers and skiers.”
• The EIS doesn’t adequately address the impact of grizzly reintroduction on other species.
• Wildlife agencies should focus on managing species that already exist in the region, like beavers.
• There have been numerous grizzly bear attacks on people in the past year in the United States. The EIS doesn’t address grizzly attacks on humans.
• Ray Campbell, a former Okanogan County commissioner and a horse packer, said “the habitat (in the North Cascades) is not there … if there was, they (grizzlies) would be there.”
• Dave Schulz, another former county commissioner and orchard owner in Twisp, said his apple trees are already being damaged by black bears. “Do I get reimbursed when they tear down the trees?”
• Andy Hover, a current Okanogan County commissioner, said the commission has taken an official stand against grizzly restoration. He predicted legal issues if the process goes forward. “We are not a state that manages through common sense. We manage through litigation.”
Some speakers simply voiced opposition to the idea of grizzly bears in the North Cascades. However, the guidelines for comment required they be deemed “substantive” to be considered, according to information from the lead agencies. Substantive is defined as comments that question the accuracy or information in the draft EIS; comments that question the adequacy of the EIS; comments that present reasonable alternatives other than those presented in the EIS; and comments that cause changes or revisions to the restoration actions proposed in the EIS.
Grizzly restoration commenting
The 45-day comment period on the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan draft EIS, and the proposed 10(j) rule, is open until midnight on Nov. 13.
• To review the draft EIS or submit comments, go to: parkplanning.nps.gov/NCEGrizzly. An informational video presentation on the proposed restoration is available on the site.
• Hard copy comments on the draft EIS can be submitted by mail or delivered to: Office of the Superintendent, Grizzly Restoration EIS, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284.
• To read or comment on the experimental population 10(j) designation go to: regulations.gov. In the Search box enter Docket No. FWS-R1-ES-2023-0074.
• Hard copy comments on the 10(j) rule can be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R1-ES-2023-0074, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Fall Church, VA 22041-3803.