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A controversial proposal to bring back grizzly bears to the North Cascades of rural Washington documents the potential costs and benefits of wildlife restoration. Many ranchers oppose the plan, while most conservation groups and Native American tribes favor re-establishing bears in their historic range.
Public comments, which ended October 24, are now under review at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. The Department of Interior may issue a ruling after an Environmental Impact Statement is complete.
“Grizzly bears in the wild are not the cuddly creatures we see portrayed in movies or television,” stated Dan Newhouse (R-Washington), U. S. Representative for the region where grizzly restoration has been proposed. “They are apex predators, weighing up to 850 pounds and standing up to 8 feet tall.”
A variety of grizzly restoration plans are on the table, ranging from doing nothing to relocating bears from British Columbia or Montana.
Grizzly bears are native to the vast mountainous region, though few have been spotted in recent years. Wildlife managers and ecologists say that the region makes sense for grizzly restoration because it would ease pressure on growing populations in the Rocky Mountains while diversifying available habitat.
“I have heard opposition from my constituents across Central Washington, not just those living in the northern region of our district,” Newhouse said in a written statement. “The North Cascades National Park is a beautiful place, where hundreds of people hike, boat, and camp. The threat of running into a grizzly bear on an afternoon hike or an overnight family camping trip would deter visitors.”
Many ranchers also oppose both this proposal and expansion of grizzly habitat generally.
“I don’t think I should have to pack bear spray or a gun while I’m going to the chicken coop to gather up eggs,” said Maggie Nutter, a fourth-generation rancher from the Sweet Grass Hills region of the Northern Montana. “It’s alarming to us. How are we supposed to prepare?”
Nutter, a member of the U. S. Cattlemen’s Association and Marias River Livestock Association, said there were no bears in her area before three years ago. Then, grizzly bears started to move east to the private farm and ranchlands from around Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Her neighbor’s sheep have been attacked by grizzlies.
“Those bears don’t belong out here where we’re trying to work the land,” Nutter said. She feels that predator reintroductions don’t make sense in Montana or Washington.
In addition to the potential danger to humans, the ranchers also point out that livestock loss repayment programs don’t fully compensate producers for the damage.
“Compensation programs as currently practiced are rife with problems,” wrote Kenny Graner, president of the U.S Cattlemen’s Association, in comments opposing the plan. “There can be significant time delays in identifying a loss, and then in responding to the loss with an investigation – all of this reduces the probability of clean determination on depredation as the site is contaminated by other scavengers.”
Graner also commented that ranchers are concerned about the potential of federal budgets not coming through when ranchers need them most. “Appropriations for compensation programs are continually subject to political processes, shifting budget priorities, and economic cycles. As such there is rarely sufficient funding to fully compensate for losses,” Graner wrote.
“Even though I can replace livestock, I worry about the safety of my grandkids,” Nutter said, echoing Graner’s concerns.
When asked about possible tourism or benefits for outdoor recreation due to wildlife viewing, Nutter responded, “that’s great. But I can tell you that no tourist ever came out to my place looking for bears or wolves.”
Conservation groups, on the other hand, support restoration efforts.
“The North Cascades provide ideal grizzly habitat because they are remote and vast, with an abundant diversity of plant species that provide the bulk of the bear’s diet,” said Jasmine Minbashian, local resident and executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council.
“When biologists were evaluating potential food sources for bears in the North Cascades, they looked at the available research on bear diets and developed a list of 124 plant species they feed on. They found that 100 of the 124 species of plants that are bear foods occur in the North Cascades.”
Minbashian said the North Cascades National Park’s Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan is modest. The plan she supports would relocate approximately five bears per year over the next decade. The goal is restoring a healthy population of 25 grizzly bears in the 6-million-acre zone.
“Our home has been their home for thousands of years and today they need our help,” Minbashian said.
Local Native American tribes have also been mostly supportive of grizzly restoration efforts.
“We do acknowledge that as the population of grizzlies in the Cascades grows, the potential for grizzly bear-human interactions will grow as well,” said Robert de los Angeles, Snoqualmie Tribal Council Chairman, in official comments to the Department of Interior. “Clearly, the safety of tribal members and the general public is paramount; however, we know that it is possible to live in this region with places for grizzly bears and for humans, because the Tribe has done exactly that for millennia prior to the arrival of Europeans.”
Other Native American tribes that support grizzly restoration in the area are the Tulalip Tribes, Okanagan National Alliance, the Yakama Nation, and the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians.