Grizzly plan could move forward with new option

A grizzly bear roams through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 2014. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that grizzly bears will not be introduced into the North Cascades.

Recently the Department of the Interior terminated the process that was to inform grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades, a decision that was applauded by U.S. Rep Dan Newhouse in a recent opinion piece.

The Interior Department’s statement on the termination of the project was misleading and contradictory, claiming the environmental review process for North Cascades grizzly bear restoration lacked “comprehensive public involvement and engagement,” yet also stating the “Department held numerous public meetings, Tribal consultations and more than 70 stakeholder briefings … receiving more than 143,000 comments.”

One might ask what a comprehensive public process may actually look like if this wasn’t it. Trumpian contradictions aside, there are blatant falsehoods in the statement, specifically that the public process revealed there was “overwhelming opposition” to the plan. First of all, there was no plan — the process of identifying a preferred recovery plan through public involvement in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement was brought to a halt.

Secondly, information Conservation Northwest gathered on the federal government’s analyses of the public comments under a Freedom of Information Act request revealed the only noun that could be described as “overwhelming” is “support,” not opposition. To be exact, out of the 126,000 comments received during the public review process up to the time of the FOIA (additional comments from 2019 had yet to be tallied), 109,000 supported grizzly bear restoration in the Cascades. Of that total, 92,000-plus wrote in support of an action alternative, all of which involve moving some bears into the North Cascades from elsewhere.

So that leaves the opposition at a total of 2,300 comments that either opposed grizzly bear recovery outright or favored the “No Action” alternative, which is essentially the same as opposing grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades. That’s a 62:1 ratio of support for moving grizzlies into the Cascades vs. opposition. The ratio of general support for recovery vs. opposition is even more lopsided.

Rep. Newhouse, whose district spans a large area east of the Cascades, riled his constituents with a steady torrent of misinformation about grizzly bears, largely at the behest of the Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association, in an effort to undermine the recovery process. His fear-mongering tactics culminated in his gathering of anti-grizzly bear speakers who performed for Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Rob Wallace last winter in Omak. The effort was clearly meant to give the false impression that the majority is opposed to grizzly recovery.

It was telling that even here, at the Omak event, a number of local residents bravely stood up and voiced strong support for grizzly restoration guided by science and community input.

Implicit in Rep. Newhouse’s messaging and subsequent press releases is that his relatively small band of grizzly opposition is more important and should hold sway over the vast majority of Washingtonians who support grizzly bear recovery and all that means for the character of our wildlands — a tyranny of the minority. The divisive tactic is a familiar one where some politicians portray a certain, largely rural, constituency as the “Real Americans” who are being overrun by the fake ones, abetted by a government bureaucracy intent on stripping them of their livelihoods.

In this case however, many rural constituents, even those of Rep. Newhouse, support grizzly bear recovery. But those folks were conveniently ignored as was the science, the law, and the benefits of grizzlies for ecosystems and for local economies.

It’s too bad that leaders like Rep. Newhouse choose to lead divisively instead of responsibly. If he intended to truly represent his district, he might have organized real roundtable events where his constituents, supporters and opponents of grizzly bear recovery alike, sat down with agency officials, scientists and conservation groups to vet concerns, ask questions, and get accurate information about grizzly bear behavior, the recovery process and laws, and policies that underpin them. Such a process for responsible, community-led bear recovery has worked very well in northwestern Montana.

Regardless, the multi-decades struggle to restore the iconic grizzly to the Cascades is not over, but simply interrupted once again by those who work for the special interests, not the public ones. We believe the Endangered Species Act and Washingtonians who support recovering this native species will prevail in the end.

Joe Scott has worked on grizzly recovery in Washington and British Columbia for more than 20 years. He is the international programs director and grizzly bear lead for Conservation Northwest, a regional organization with staff working across Washington state.