OKANOGAN, Wash. — Approximately 600 people, mostly Okanogan County residents, were loud and clear. They don’t want grizzly bears in Washington’s North Cascades.
Rob Wallace, assistant U.S. Secretary of the Interior, his deputy John Tanner, and the state heads of the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were the recipients of that message at the Okanogan County Fairgrounds the evening of Oct. 7.
The agencies held the meeting at the behest of U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who said the agencies ignored local voices during a 2017 comment period.
Newhouse has long been strongly opposed to agency plans to import grizzlies into the North Cascades from other states, saying the apex predator would threaten families, wildlife and livestock.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Secretary (David) Bernhardt saw this as important enough to send the assistant secretary out. Everyone knows how I stand on this. I don’t think the science supports it and it’s against state law,” Newhouse said to loud applause. He had previously indicated a large turnout could be key in ending bear import plans.
“No decision has been made yet,” Wallace told Capital Press before the meeting started. “I grew up in Wyoming and have been around the politics of bears and wolves for a long time.”
Capital Press counted 515 chairs before the meeting started. They were filled and close to 100 people stood in the back.
Over nearly three hours about 50 people spoke against grizzly bear importation and 12 spoke for it. All were chosen through a lottery. Others gave written and oral comments at kiosks in the back of the auditorium. The agencies are taking public comment through Oct. 24.
One speaker asked for a show of hands of people opposed to grizzly bear introduction and almost every hand in the room went up. He asked for those in favor and maybe two dozen hands were lifted.
Speakers opposed to grizzlies talked about the threat to ranchers, orchardists, hikers, back country outfitters, tourism, cattle, sheep and how it violates a state law prohibiting grizzly importation.
They said there are few grizzlies in the area because the habitat does not support them and to bring new ones in would be cruel because they wouldn’t have enough food. They would end up getting shot as they looked for food on ranches and in orchards, people said.
Further, they said grizzlies will lead to roads and trails not being maintained and even closed, that it’s a taking of public and private property and that the government will be liable when people and livestock are killed.
Proponents — including the Methow Valley Citizen Council, Conservation Northwest and National Parks Conservation Association — said there is sufficient habitat, that people and grizzlies co-exist in other places and that bears are needed for a better ecosystem. They supported an alternative for limited importation.
“With proper management, we can co-exist. I know they are strong and powerful animals, but they’re not hiding behind every tree to get us,” said Jessica Kelly, a Mazama hiker.
Opponents countered governmental agencies are incapable of proper management.
Karen Bound, Methow Valley, said she lived close to grizzlies in Alaska and never felt threatened. “They mostly graze like cattle for vegetation and fish, clams and ground squirrels. They’re reclusive and don’t like to be around people,” she said.
Melanie Rowland, Twisp, said “a miniscule number of people” have been killed by grizzlies. She drew audience grumblings and laughter when she said bears won’t eat humans or livestock if they have vegetation.
State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, received loud applause when she spoke about the negative impact of bears on small town economies and schools.
State Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy; Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover; and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin all spoke against grizzly importation.
Rankin said Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all have much smaller human populations to co-exist with bears than Washington.
Danny DeFranco, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said ranchers are good stewards of land and wildlife while the states seems to manage only certain species.
Dave Dashiell, a Stevens County rancher, said he’s losing over $100,000 a year in sheep to wolves and that grizzlies could drive him out of business.
Michael Zoretic, Alta Lake, said he has three small children and doesn’t want them “walking around with 800-pound bears.”
Robin Stice, co-owner of Eden Valley Guest Ranch east of Oroville, and another Stevens County rancher both said they’ve seen grizzlies in Washington.
The agencies have said the last confirmed grizzly sighting in Washington was in 1993.
Stice voiced concern about genetics being impacted by importation.
The other rancher said there are 55,000 grizzlies in North America with only 1,500 in the lower 48 states, which are enough.