SPOKANE — The federal government on Tuesday decided to scrap plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem in Washington state.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt told a meeting of community members in Omak, Washington, that his agency will not conduct the environmental impact statement needed to move forward with the plan.
“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 reintroduced into the North Cascades,” Bernhardt stated. “Grizzly bears are not in danger of extinction, and Interior will continue to build on its conservation successes managing healthy grizzly bear populations across their existing range.”
The decision was hailed by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington. In October 2019, hundreds of North Central Washington residents attended a public listening session, requested by Newhouse, in Okanogan, where federal officials heard concerns on the proposal to reintroduce the bears in the North Cascades.
“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,″ Newhouse said. “I have long advocated that local voices must be heard by the federal government on this issue, and I am enormously grateful to Secretary Bernhardt for not only listening to our concerns and opinions, but for delivering this news in person, right here in North Central Washington.”
The Department of the Interior began planning the environmental review process in 2015 under the Obama administration.
The recovery of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states is an amazing success story, the agency said. Most of the efforts have focused on six areas of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and eastern Washington state.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been the primary focus of grizzly recovery efforts to date, and grizzly populations have increased to about 700 bears there since the animals were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.
The environmental group Conservation Northwest was disappointed by the decision, but did not think it was the final word on the bears.
“We are still confident they will be restored there,″ spokesman Chase Gunnell said.
Gunnell said 80% of the people who provided public comments on the bears supported growing the population by bringing grizzlies to the back country in and around North Cascades National Park.
Gunnell said it was false that local residents overwhelmingly oppose reintroduction of the bears.
“This is not an issue that has just west side support,″ Gunnell said, referring to more populous and liberal western Washington. “Public support is strong.″
Fewer than 10 grizzlies are thought to live across 9,800 square miles anchored by North Cascades National Park, Conservation Northwest said.
Given their isolation from other grizzly populations, the low number of bears, their very slow reproductive rate and other constraints, the North Cascades grizzly bear population is considered the most at-risk bear population in the United States, the environmental group said.
Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975. They have slowly regained territory and increased in numbers in the ensuing decades, but they still occupy only a small portion of their historical range.
An estimated 50,000 bears once roamed the contiguous U.S. Government-sponsored programs led to most being poisoned, shot and trapped by the 1930s.