Many in Okanogan County say ‘don’t bring in’ grizzlies
Neary 150 people packed into the annex building at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds to give federal leaders a piece of their minds about bringing grizzly bears into Washington’s North Cascades.
This Omak meeting was the first in a series of in-person public comment meetings across the state.
When asked by a commenter to raise their hands if they were not in favor of grizzly bears being brought into the North Cascades, arms flew up around the room. A bear claw sign on top of a pitchfork, with a ‘No’ on the paw illustrated the majority sentiment: don’t bring grizzlies here.
“We’ll take the ones that come. Don’t damn bring them in a trailer,” said Rachel McClure, with the Okanogan County Cattlemen’s Association.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service are contemplating bringing grizzlies from other areas into the North Cascades. The wild and rugged area is cut off from other grizzly habitat.
The agencies are proposing several options. One is to do nothing. The federal agencies, however, would prefer to bring in three to seven bears per year for five to 10 years. Using what’s known as a 10(j) rule, they would designate grizzlies in the area as an experimental population. That would also mean more options to deal with any bears that cause conflicts.
Maps designating different “zones” would offer more flexible options, federal leaders said.
“We have a unique opportunity in the North Cascades with this thing called the 10(j) [rule] – it’s a larger toolbox you can use more often and earlier. If a bear finds itself in a place where it might get in trouble, you can preemptively, in certain circumstances, move that bear,” said Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrew Lavelle.
Grizzlies are one of the slowest reproducing mammals, which accounts for what biologists call dire circumstances for this population and the slow growth rate predicted by federal leaders if bears were brought to the area.
The debate has fed tension in north-central Washington for decades. In a 1993 meeting, the conflict bubbled over – spit flying in the faces of federal leaders as locals voiced concerns.
Concerns here haven’t changed much, either. Instead, many people argued, why not bring bears to Seattle or Olympia? Many others worried about safety and property. Still, others called it “offensive” that this topic was again up for debate.
“Why are we here again? We were here in 2019. Didn’t you hear us? Didn’t you hear us? I’m asking you,” Naomi Noel said, pointing at federal leaders during her public comments.
Some said their concerns are with their herds, especially sheep, but also concern with a lack of understanding of the way of life out here.
The heat also rose in the room when Okanogan County Sheriff Paul Budrow’s allotted time ran out. He asked to continue on with another person’s two minutes – a lottery system was used to randomly pick tickets for people to speak.
The facilitator told the room every person could only use one lottery ticket. Throughout the rest of the evening, people yelled and asked during their comments for Budrow to finish his thoughts.
Budrow silenced the outcries. After the meeting wrapped up, he continued to speak to the room.
“If [the bears] attack or go after a person, I’m not going to get into a pissing match with a U.S. wildlife agent telling me I can’t shoot the bear,” Burdow said during his initial comments. “You will not arrest me. I will take care of the problem.”
While the room was mostly in favor of doing nothing, recent public comments from previous efforts ini 2017 mostly favored bringing grizzlies to the North Cascades.
The proposition to bring bears into the region rose up as recently as 2015. Then, in 2020, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt abruptly stopped a federal environmental impact statement that considered options for potentially bringing bears to the area.
Conservation groups say grizzly bears would be a boon to the ecosystem, controlling deer and elk populations, spreading seeds and other nutrients. A handful of people spoke to grizzlies’ benefit to the ecosystem, to jeers and boos from the crowd.
“The remarkable thing about the North Cascades is the habitat is still there, good habitat we know can support a viable population of grizzly bears,” said Gordon Congdon, who used to work for the World Wildlife Fund. “Here’s a place where we can restore grizzly bears, and there are very few places like that in the United States.”
Congdon, who now lives in Wenatchee, said he has always wanted to see grizzlies in the North Cascades.
“I see this as a big opportunity,” he said.
Only a handful of grizzly bears potentially live in the North Cascades. Biologists say there are so few of them that the bears in this region will be wiped out, unless they get help.
The North Cascades Ecosystem spans the U.S.-Canadian border, but the last time a grizzly bear sighting was confirmed on this side of the boundary was in 1996.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents Okanogan County, has pushed back against adding more predators to the landscape.
During the three-hour public comment meeting in Omak, Washington on Oct. 30, Newhouse said federal consideration to bring grizzlies into the area is contrary to common sense. He said the outlined plans mean agencies are fast-tracking grizzly reintroduction.
“In my humble opinion, you’ve already made up minds as to plan to bring grizzlies into our communities,” Newhouse said in public comments.
Newhouse has previously requested extra public meetings in Okanogan County, saying people here do not often have their voices heard.
Others across the state will have a chance to speak up, as well.
Another public comment meeting will be held 5:30-8:30 p.m. on November 3 in Winthrop, Wash., at the Winthrop Barn Auditorium
The federal government is accepting written comments through 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time, Nov. 13.