Interior Secretary David Bernhardt personally delivered the news Tuesday at the Omak, Wash., Elks Lodge: The federal government won’t release grizzly bears into the North Cascades.
Bernhardt was joined by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican, and an invited group, including cattlemen, farmers and local elected officials. After a brief introduction, Bernhardt said the federal government was scrapping reintroducing grizzlies.
“I just about started crying. It was, ‘What? Really?’” Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said. “Everybody was really, really thankful. It gives rural America hope, having the government listening to its comments and not just rolling over it.”
Grizzly bears were once abundant in the North Cascades, but there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting since 1996. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service drew up several scenarios in which bears would be captured elsewhere and released a handful at a time, gradually building the population to 200 over 25 to 100 years.
The Washington Legislature passed a law in 1995 forbidding introducing grizzly bears into the state. The federal government interpreted the law to mean the state won’t physically help.
The federal agencies hadn’t settled on a plan. In halting further study, Bernhardt cited local opposition.
“The Trump administration is committed to being a good neighbor, and the people who live and work in the north-central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced into the North Cascades,” he said in a statement.
Newhouse also stressed local sentiment.
“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,” he said.
Conservation Northwest spokesman Chase Gunnell said some of the region’s residents backed reintroducing grizzlies.
“We saw many folks stand up and voice support for grizzly restoration,” he said.
Gunnell questioned whether the Interior Department was following the Endangered Species Act. Grizzly bears are a threatened species in the Lower 48, and the USFWS has identified the North Cascades as one of six “recovery ecosystems.”
“We do not believe that ‘no-relocation’ complies with the ESA requirement for grizzly bear recovery,” Gunnell said. “We don’t believe this will be the last word.”
The recovery zone covers more than 9,500 square miles in seven counties. The North Cascades National Park makes up 10% of the area, while national forests make up 76%.
The region has more than 220,000 head of cattle. A preliminary environmental study concluded that once the grizzly population reached 200, the bears would kill only one cow and two sheep a year.
Okanogan County rancher Vic Stokes said he was worried the problem would be worse.
“There were a lot of ‘mays’ in the report. Being in the middle of wolf recovery and anadromous fish recovery, that word ‘may’ pops out,” he said. “It usually doesn’t go in the right direction, from my perspective.”
Thousands commented on reintroducing grizzly bears. Many supported the idea of restoring an icon of the West. Others, however, said grizzlies would disrupt rural life.
Bears are drawn to orchards, beehives, livestock boneyards and calving areas, according to the Interior Department’s preliminary environmental report.
April Clayton, an orchardist and president of the Chelan-Douglas County Farm Bureau, said she would have expected grizzly bears to move down from the Cascades and into north-central Washington’s tree fruit areas.
“Bears love pears. They’re not going to stay in their zone,” she said. “And once there’s bear scat in the orchard, good luck getting a crew to go through to work it.”