Feds nix griz restoration in North Cascades, leaving Montana as main recovery zone

The Trump administration has pulled support for grizzly bears in the North Cascade Mountains, leaving Montana as the main Western state for grizzly bear recovery.

This week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt traveled to Omak in central Washington to announce that the Department of the Interior would stop work on an environmental impact statement for the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan.

Bernhardt credited U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., with influencing his decision.

“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. 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,” Bernhardt told the people of Omak.

Covering almost 10,000 square miles in central Washington, the North Cascade Ecosystem Recovery Zone is almost 90% federal land, which made it a good candidate for grizzly restoration. Grizzlies used to inhabit the area, but there has been no evidence of resident grizzly bears since 1996.

A few errant individuals might have wandered down out of British Columbia, Canada, now and then. But the Canadian government considers the grizzly bears in its portion of the ecosystem to be the most endangered population in Canada. British Columbia suspended its grizzly bear hunt for that reason.

The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, have been working since 2014 on developing an environmental impact statement of grizzly restoration.

The agencies conducted six public scoping meetings in March 2015, followed by dozens of additional information briefings and meetings throughout the process with tribes, local municipalities, counties, district Congressional staff, and other stakeholders and interest groups. Two public review and comment periods on the 2016 Draft EIS received more than 143,000 comments, but no final EIS has been produced under the Trump administration.

Unexpectedly, the National Park Service reopened the comment period in July 2019. Then, under pressure from Newhouse, the agencies hosted a public meeting in Okanagan County in October. Omak is in Okanagan County in the Methow Valley, which abuts North Cascades National Park and the Canadian border.

Many of those who showed up to oppose restoration cited fears of livestock depredation or human safety in their communities.

However, Denise Shultz, Park Service public information officer, told the Methow Valley News later that among the 126,000 comments received during the July round of public comment, “the overwhelming majority was leaning toward restoration.”

Statewide, there is significant public support, with 80% of Washington voters in favor of restoration.

“Congressman Newhouse is ignoring a large majority of his constituents who support grizzly bear recovery many of whom who live in the heart of the proposed recovery area. He can do better than this. The proposed restoration plan is a modest plan that would give grizzly bears a chance at survival in their native home – the North Cascades,” said Methow Valley Citizens Council executive director Jasmine Minbashian in a statement Tuesday.

With the North Cascades Ecosystem off the table, that leaves five recovery areas, most of which are at least partly in Montana: the Northern Continental Divide; the Cabinet-Yaak; the Selkirks in Idaho, northeastern Washington and Canada; the Yellowstone in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho; and the Bitterroot mostly in Idaho. However, the Bitterroot has no officially recognized population, and the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirks have dangerously small populations of only 50-80 bears.

“This enormously disappointing decision is the latest flip-flop away from conservation by this administration, which under Secretary Ryan Zinke supported grizzly recovery efforts. We will continue to work with community members to advocate for the reintroduction of grizzly bears,” said Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com