Grizzly recovery based on facts

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Recently we attended a meeting of the Skagit County Commissioners with representatives from North Cascades National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding a federal planning process considering grizzly bear restoration in the North Cascades.

Expecting a collaborative discussion with federal agency partners, we were dismayed the County Commissioners had invited the American Stewards of Liberty—a Texas-based organization that seeks to gut the Endangered Species Act and privatize public lands—to berate the federal process and agency staff and spread inaccurate and inflammatory information about human–grizzly bear interactions. The Commissioners also invited Paul Fielder to speak at the meeting. Mr. Fielder is a retired biologist from the Chelan PUD and now an advocate for wildlife trapping in Montana.

The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been leading a multiyear public process with U.S. Forest Service involvement —formally known as an Environmental Impact Statement—to engage local communities in determining the most effective ways to restore grizzly bears to self-sustaining numbers in the North Cascades.

This follows decades of scientific study following the 1975 listing of the grizzly bear as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has since found that the North Cascades grizzly bear warrants an “endangered” classification given its extremely small numbers.

These magnificent creatures roamed the American West, including the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, for thousands of years, sharing the landscape with bison, elk, wolves, black bears, Native Americans, and eventually early European settlers.

However, unregulated trapping, poisoning, hunting and habitat loss eliminated grizzly bears from 98 percent of their former range in the contiguous United States. The last legally hunted grizzly bear in the Cascades was shot in 1967 in today’s North Cascades National Park.

Based on successful restoration efforts elsewhere—including Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and Montana’s Cabinet Mountains—the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan is considering several options to re-establish a self-sustaining number of bears in a 10,000-square mile (over 6 million acres) North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area. 
Stretching from I-90 north to the Canadian border and anchored by North Cascades National Park, the designated North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is one of the largest blocks of wild, nationally owned public land remaining in the lower 48 states. Research indicates this wilderness landscape has quality habitat capable of supporting a self-sustaining grizzly bear population.

We don’t expect that everyone will support the restoration of grizzly bears, but concerns should be addressed with education based on facts, not fear. All three of us have worked and recreated in the backcountry every year, many days at a time, and have experienced no negative incidents with bears. We travel smartly, taking very simple measures to avoid conflicts with all wildlife, bears included. As a reward, we observe some amazing animals, doing what they do best in the backcountry, foraging on wild foods and keeping the ecosystem in balance. Wilderness, with its immense spaces, provides opportunities for that rare sighting of truly amazing creatures, and offers tranquility and hope for the future often lacking in our hurried lives.

Most Washington state residents understand this: A 2016 public opinion poll found that 80 percent of registered Washington State voters  surveyed support efforts to recover the declining population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades. Notably, this overwhelming support extends across gender, generational, regional and even partisan lines.

Likewise, the majority of public comments submitted as part of the EIS process to date have been strongly supportive of grizzly bear reintroduction.
We appreciate the County Commissioners looking out for the interests of Skagit County residents, and wanting to be engaged in the federal recovery process. Indeed, that is their job as our local elected officials.

However, the interests of local residents are not well served by importing a Texas-based, anti-Endangered Species Act, anti-public lands advocacy organization to spread inflammatory mistruths about grizzly bear reintroduction. 

For those who have concerns, working in partnership with agency scientists and planners, based on real information and best practices from other regions where people and grizzlies coexist, is the best approach. 

The commissioners have said they will meet again with federal agency representatives to hear responses to their questions and concerns.

Finally, we urge the Commissioners to work in partnership with federal and state agencies to address legitimate fears and concerns, and leave fear-mongering and broad anti-environmental political agendas out of the discussion.

Brenda Cunningham (M.S. in Biology) is a retired biologist, having worked on grizzly bear monitoring in the North Cascades ecosystem, as well as in Yellowstone National Park as both an interpretive ranger and resource management biologist. Peggy Ratermann (M.S. in Science Education) is a past research assistant in the biotechnology field, retired teacher in the Mount Vernon School District, and a frequent hiker and backpacker in our national parks and wilderness areas. Tim Manns had a 34-year career with the National Park Service as a park ranger/interpretive naturalist, including a decade in Yellowstone National Park and 14 years at North Cascades National Park.

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