North Cascades Grizzly Proposal Brings Out Hundreds Opposed (And Some In Favor) In Okanogan

This undated file photo provided by the National Park Service shows a grizzly bear walking along a ridge in Montana.CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
A grizzly bear walking along a ridge in Montana. The federal government has been considering a plan to translocate grizzlies from Montana to Washington's North Cascades. CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Listen

It’s been four years since the federal government initially started asking Washington residents whether they’d like to see more grizzly bears brought into the state. And still, the heated debate continues.

Around 450 people filed into the AgriComplex building at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds Monday night. They wanted to voice their opinions on a draft plan to relocate grizzlies to the North Cascades.

Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse, whose large central Washington district includes the North Cascades region, had pushed for another opportunity for his constituents to comment on the potential reintroductions. That came after a series of public meetings and an earlier comment period. 

Newhouse said this meeting was a “huge opportunity, no matter where you stand on this issue.”

“I think you all know where I stand on this issue,” Newhouse told the crowd. “I don’t think the science supports it. I think it’s against state law. I don’t think the local communities want it.”

To that, people in the crowd whistled and cheered.

“A Recipe For Disaster”

For three hours after that, 62 people spoke about why they did or did not want grizzly bears in the North Cascades. Each person was selected from a lottery drawing, and each had two minutes to speak. Most in the room said they did not want more “apex predators” in their backyard.

Alta Lake resident Michael Zoretic said he was worried about the burden grizzlies would pose to people’s safety.

“We’re talking about an 800-pound animal that has, what? – six inch-long claws. That is a recipe for disaster for hikers and hunters and people just going out with their dogs for walks,” Zoretic said.

To that the crowd raised their arms in support, waving their hands for emphasis. They’d been asked not to cheer or applaud, although they often clapped in support or booed and murmured their disagreement.

Around 450 people came to the Okanogan County Fairgrounds Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 for a public meeting about possible grizzly bear reintroduction in the North Cascades. Most voiced opposition to the idea, including U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents much of central Washington. CREDIT: Courtney Flatt/NWPB

Around 450 people came to the Okanogan County Fairgrounds Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 for a public meeting about possible grizzly bear reintroduction in the North Cascades. Most voiced opposition to the idea, including U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents much of central Washington. CREDIT: COURTNEY FLATT/NWPB

Many ranchers in the crowd said they worry about adding another large predator that would look at their livestock as food. Dave Dashiell, a rancher in Stevens County, said he’s concerned grizzly reintroduction will end up like wolf conflicts: In his estimation, not well.

“I can’t imagine the grizzly thing being any better. It might even be a bigger trainwreck,” Dashiell said. “It’s always your fault when something goes wrong. It’s never the predator’s fault. It’s always the producer.”

Some conservationists were sprinkled throughout the crowd. Jasmine Minbashian, with the Methow Valley Citizens Council, lives near the area where bears could be reintroduced. She brought along a list of other Methow Valley residents who wanted to see the grizzlies brought back.

“Living next to this big, wild place, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of that wild place. That includes keeping all the parts, even if those parts have big teeth and claws,” Minbashian said. “There’s also a lot of fear. I understand those concerns, but a lot of those fears are overblown.”

Many supporters spoke of their experiences with grizzlies, like wheat grower Matt Rudolf, who said he had “experienced grizzlies in seven different habitats.”

“I want to restore the grizzly because ecosystems that have the grizzly have been proven to be better,” Rudolf said. “I think we’re strong enough as a species that we can co-exist.”

Once Numbered In The Thousands

Biologists say there are only a handful of grizzlies left in the state – so few that one man who’s studied grizzlies his entire life has yet to see one in Washington. Scientists say that if something isn’t done soon, the bears will disappear from the state for good. 

“The likelihood of the (grizzly) bears recovering in the North Cascades on their own is very, very small. In fact it probably isn’t going to happen,” biologist Bill Gaines said in an earlier interview.

Biologists say grizzly bears in the North Cascades once numbered in the thousands. They were wiped out from fur trading, hunting and habitat fragmentation.

Records from the Hudson’s Bay Company indicate that in the mid-1800s trappers traded nearly 4,000 grizzly hides through forts in the area — although all of those pelts may not have come from the North Cascades.

The region is prime grizzly habitat, mainly for its vast ruggedness. Grizzly bears need large areas to roam.

That’s why the federal government drafted a variety of plans to help save Washington’s grizzlies. The four options range from doing nothing to slowly reintroducing 25 bears to the North Cascades over a decade. Under the different plans, bears would be brought in from British Columbia and Montana, which has also dealt with controversial grizzly reintroductions.

 If this proposal does move forward, it could take up to a century for the Washington grizzly population to reach the ultimate goal of 200 bears in the North Cascades.

“Supporter Of The Great Bear”

Federal officials originally received more than 126,000 public comments on the draft plans, after a series of public hearings. The plans gained backing from former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana native who said he was a “supporter of the Great Bear.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaking on March 23, 2018, about the restarted re-introduction process for grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades. Looking on is Karen Taylor Goodrich, the superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. CREDIT: EILIS O'NEILL

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaking on March 23, 2018, about the restarted re-introduction process for grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades. Looking on is Karen Taylor Goodrich, the superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. CREDIT: EILIS O’NEILL/KUOW

In a surprise visit in March 2018, Zinke said to a small crowd in Sedro-Wolley, Washington, that he wanted to make sure the process was done right.

“This is not the reintroduction of a rabbit. It is the reintroduction of the grizzly,” Zinke said. “And, when done right by professional management, the grizzly can return harmony to the ecosystem.”

Under Zinke, the reintroduction efforts appeared to gain momentum. They had suffered from fits and starts over a 30-year effort to bring back grizzlies to the North Cascades.

But shortly after Zinke’s visit to the region, Rep. Newhouse sought to deny funding to any translocation of bears into the state. The bill eventually failed. 

Newhouse requested the federal government host more meetings with his constituents, especially in Okanogan County. 

Initially, federal officials within the Interior Department hosted six scoping meetings in 2015. They held eight public hearings and two webinars on a draft environmental impact statement in 2017, including hearings in Omak and Winthrop. 

Federal officials also provided informal updates at 70 other meetings across the region, including with tribes, elected officials and interest groups, like cattlemen, conservation organizations and recreationists.

The federal government had planned to make a decision on grizzly reintroduction by the end of 2018. But the plans stalled after Zinke resigned as interior secretary, and amid pushback from Rep. Newhouse and others concerned with reintroduction.

Additional public comments are now being accepted through Oct. 24.

Courtney Flatt covers environmental and natural resource issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington’s Tri-Cities. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt

Related Stories:

A sow grizzly bear spotted near Camas in northwestern Montana. Wildlife officials endorsed a plan in August to keep northwestern Montana's grizzly population at roughly 1,000 bears as the state seeks to bolster its case that lifting federal protections will not lead to the bruins' demise. CREDIT: MONTANA FISH AND WILDLIFE AND PARK

Timeline: A History Of Grizzly Bear Recovery In The Lower 48 States

At their peak, grizzly bears numbered more than 50,000 in the Lower 48. Facing threats from habitat loss, hunting and conflicts with people and livestock, their numbers dwindled to fewer than 1,000 in the lower 48 by the time the Endangered Species Act was implemented in 1975. Here’s a timeline of the management actions, court cases and notable events that have shaped grizzly bear recovery since their ESA listing through today. Continue Reading Timeline: A History Of Grizzly Bear Recovery In The Lower 48 States

Trina Jo Bradley at the gate to one of her ranch's pastures. Like most ranchers here, she's been largely accommodating of the grizzlies as their population has rebounded and they've spread off of the neighboring mountains into the more populated plains. CREDIT: CLAIRE HARBAGE/NPR

As Grizzlies Come Back Across The West, Frustration Builds Over Continued Protections

Since being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, grizzly bear populations in northwest Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area have more than tripled in size. That tolerance, scientists and wildlife officials say, is key to the grizzly bears’ future as the effects of climate change harden, the West gets more crowded, and bears spreads into areas they haven’t been in more than 100 years. Continue Reading As Grizzlies Come Back Across The West, Frustration Builds Over Continued Protections