The Interior Department is ditching an Obama-era plan to reintroduce grizzly bears in northern Washington state, saying the bears aren’t in danger of extinction and local residents don’t want them in the area.
“The people who live and work in north central Washington have made their voices clear that they do not want grizzly bears reintroduced into the North Cascades,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Tuesday at a roundtable with community members in Omak, Wash., according to an Interior Department news release.
The release said Interior was scrapping a bear restoration plan for the North Cascades ecosystem that has been under consideration since 2015. The department will continue building upon its conservation successes managing healthy grizzly bear populations across their existing range, Bernhardt said.
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) thanked Bernhardt for listening to the concerns of homeowners, farmers, and ranchers in the region. Newhouse described the bear as an “apex predator” without natural predators.
“We do not want grizzly bears in north central Washington,” he said in the news release with Bernhardt.
Environmental groups condemned the decision, saying Newhouse and Bernhardt incorrectly characterized public sentiment on the question of reintroducing bears.
“Public support for grizzly bear restoration has been strong; with support among roughly 80% of respondents in recent public comment period and polling, including communities on both sides of the Cascades,” said Chase Gunnell, a spokesman for Conservation Northwest.
“We believe restoring this native species is required under the Endangered Species Act, and we’re confident it will move forward,” he said. The group is considering next options, he said.
Interior said it has held numerous meetings with tribal, state, and other partners on the issue since 2017, as well as two public review and comment periods, which received more than 143,000 comments.
The North Cascades was one of six grizzly bear recovery zones in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. In the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem—the primary focus of bear recovery to date—the group is one of the most studied bear populations in the world due to the efforts of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.
Now grizzlies occupy less than 5% of their historic range, and the North Cascades is prime habitat for the large animal, capable of supporting more than 700 bears, said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Their recovery there is critical to the overall recovery of grizzly bears in the U.S.,” she said.
Zaccardi said a 2014 petition filed by the group identified 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in the lower 48 states. The group filed a lawsuit in June 2019 challenging the Trump administration’s failure to update the federal recovery plan for grizzly bears.