There have been four confirmed sightings of grizzlies in the North Cascades over the last decade. (Steve Rochetta / National Park Service)

There have been four confirmed sightings of grizzlies in the North Cascades over the last decade. (Steve Rochetta / National Park Service)

Editorial: Public comments on grizzlies’ return ignored

The decision to halt review of the bears’ return to the North Cascades disregards a public process.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If you were one of about 127,000 people who submitted comments or attended meetings — including a well-attended one earlier this year in Darrington — regarding a proposal to reintroduce small numbers of grizzly bears into the North Cascades National Park and its surrounding ecosystem, the Trump administration has a message for you:

Thanks, but never mind.

Whether you spoke in favor or against the proposal, your comments will now be shelved — disregarded without further consideration — following the decision by the Department of the Interior to shut down a North Cascades National Park committee’s review of an environmental impact statement for four scenarios that sought to slowly restore a small self-sustaining population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades, according to recent reports in The Missoulian and The Herald.

Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent for the national park, told the Missoulian that the park’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee was in the process of evaluating public comments that had been collected following release of a draft of the impact statement when she received Zinke’s order, which also stalled discussions with Canadian wildlife managers regarding grizzly recovery efforts in the ecosystem’s British Columbia reaches.

The committee was considering recommendation of one of four proposals to slowly reintroduce grizzlies into the North Cascades Ecosystem, 9,800 square miles that includes the national park as well as large parts of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests.

Currently, fewer than 10 grizzlies may remain in Washington state’s North Cascades, with 10 to 20 more in British Columbia. Grizzlies likely numbered in the thousands in the region before over-hunting reduced the population in the late-19th century to less than 400. In comparison, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem around Montana’s Glacier National Park supports about 1,000 grizzly bears on 12,000 square miles of wilderness. Similarly grizzlies number about 700 within the 9,200 square miles of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

With the goal of reaching a population of about 200 grizzlies in the ecosystem — over the next 60 to 100 years — three options proposed relocating between five to 10 bears each year over different time periods. A fourth no-action option, which would have used only conservation measures, was not anticipated to increase the grizzly population.

The opposition to the reintroduction of grizzlies, particularly in those communities closest to wilderness areas, such as Darrington, is understandable. But the risk to safety for residents and visitors to the wilderness is overstated when you consider the numbers and area being discussed and the nature of grizzly bears.

Grizzlies can be dangerous, particularly when defending their cubs, Jack Oelfke, chief of natural and cultural resources from North Cascades National Park, told the Yakima Herald-Republic earlier this year. But they primarily are plant eaters and, unlike the much more plentiful black bears, keep to remote wilderness areas and shy away from hikers and others.

“If a grizzly bear knows you’re there, and you haven’t surprised them, they avoid humans as much as they can,” Oelfke told the Herald-Republic.

Even in the Yellowstone and Glacier park ecosystems — where the grizzlies’ numbers have recovered to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering delisting them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — reports or attacks that result in injuries or deaths are extremely rare. You’re much more likely to die in a vehicle accident on a way to a national park than in a grizzly attack.

Earlier this year, we explained why we thought it was worth even that small risk to return a sustainable grizzly population to the North Cascades: For the same reason we want to save wild salmon runs in our rivers and preserve pods of orcas in the Salish Sea, we need to restore grizzlies to a wilderness that needs them for its own health and diversity and would be less without them.

Still, it’s a decision that should follow only from a public process that considers the testimony of experts, residents and recreationalists. Shutting down the review of the proposal before comments and testimony have received full consideration favors neither supporters nor critics and demonstrates no respect for bears, people or democratic government.

Update:

An earlier version of this editorial said that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered a halt to the review of the proposal to reintroduce grizzlies into North Cascades. The Associated Press reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he has not ordered work stopped on the Environmental Impact Statement. However, a Zinke spokeswoman Thursday offered no explanation why North Cascades National Park staff believed it had been told to halt the review. Nor did the Interior Department clarify the status of the review.

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