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Fight continues for grizzlies in North Cascades despite federal rejection

After years of discussion, the Department of Interior announced it would not complete an important impact study.

OMAK, Wash. — Advocates say the fight continues to restore grizzly bears to a part of their native range in Washington’s North Cascades, though federal officials halted the process last week.

The discussion over bringing grizzlies back to the North Cascades ecosystem has gone on for years. The bears are listed as threatened in the lower 48 states.

Last week, the Department of Interior abruptly announced the “termination” of the process to compile an environmental impact statement, and ‘discontinued the proposal.’ 

“Very frustrating and disappointing because science, the law, public opinion – this is a success story waiting to happen, and yet we were robbed of that by this administration,” said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “But it was due to local politics. Hopefully, we can get back on track before the grizzly bear disappears entirely.”

RELATED: Feds scrap plans to reintroduce grizzlies to North Cascades

The NPCA is one of several groups advocating for the bears’ return, pointing out that they were decimated by people, and the important role the predators play in the ecosystem.

Estimates place only a handful of bears in the vicinity of the North Cascades in recent years. A 2011 study estimated fewer than 20 animals on the U.S. side, and a hiker photographed one in 2010, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. In one study, Washington Fish and Wildlife writes “Grizzly bears are not currently known to occupy the North Cascades ecosystem in north-central Washington..."

A population is known to live in eastern Washington's Selkirk mountains, but state officials believe all the bears here to be fringes of other populations in British Columbia and Idaho.

Federal officials call the U.S. North Cascades Ecosystem population “the most at-risk grizzly bear populations in the United States today.”  

Grizzlies populations have grown in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks in recent years, with protections for the animals.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) celebrated the decision, which came at a roundtable with Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt in Omak, WA.

“This announcement is welcomed by my constituents in Central Washington who have consistently shared my same concerns about introducing an apex predator into the North Cascades,” said Rep. Newhouse in a release.

 “Homeowners, farmers, ranchers, and small business owners in our rural communities were loud and clear: We do not want grizzly bears in North Central Washington. I have long advocated that local voices must be heard by the federal government on this issue, and I am enormously grateful to Secretary Bernhardt for not only listening to our concerns and opinions but for delivering this news in person, right here in North Central Washington," the statement went on to say. 

RELATED: Feds look again at reintroducing grizzlies to North Cascades

The Washington Cattlemen’s Association (WCA) fought the proposal as well and was glad to learn it was being dropped.

“It was going to negatively affect our producers and all families that live out there,” said Sam Ledgerwood, president of the WCA.

“I probably shouldn’t go there, but like the wolf, it was eliminated for a reason,” he said. “…They’re carnivores and they’re going to eat meat, and our cattle is what’s there.”

It’s an about-face for the Dept. of Interior. Secretary Ryan Zinke, who served in the Trump administration but resigned in 2018, previously visited the North Cascades National Park and voiced support for the project.

"Restoring the grizzly bear to the North Cascades Ecosystem is the American conservation ethic come to life," Zinke said in a news release at the time. "The loss of the grizzly bear in the North Cascades would disturb the ecosystem and rob the region of an icon."

Since then, the government continued to collect public comments on this issue.

But advocates contend co-existing with grizzlies in Washington can be accomplished safely, and plan to continue pushing to restore them to a small part of their native range.

"We'll be looking at the legal options but I think it's also important that people that care about grizzly bears let their feelings be known,” said Smith. “This administration has reversed course on some other decisions they made when they learned they were unpopular.”

“We know we can work things out and make management work, but we’re not given the chance if they don’t sign the final [EIS] decision there,” Smith said.

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