Almost two and half years after public comment was taken for a draft study on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades, the federal agencies leading the analysis are launching a second public comment period.

The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that the public is invited to provide additional comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, released in January 2017. The public comment period will open Friday and close Oct. 24.

Comments are being accepted online and at the North Cascades National Park Service Complex office in Sedro-Woolley.

The draft EIS remains unchanged, Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Deputy State Supervisor Ann Froschauer said, but the federal agencies decided to reopen the document for public comment in response to requests from members of the public and elected officials including the Skagit County Board of Commissioners.

It remains unclear why the EIS process stalled following the initial public comment ended in April 2017.

During that first public comment period, concerns were raised by the Skagit County commissioners and other area officials about the possibility of bringing grizzly bears to the North Cascades from areas such as Montana and British Columbia to rebuild a regional population.

By the end of 2017, news outlets reported the EIS process had been halted, but the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior would not confirm or deny the reports.

Several months later, in March 2018, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited Sedro-Woolley to announce his support for restoring the grizzly bear population. He also said he had instructed the agencies involved to speed up the EIS process.

Foschauer said the agencies then decided about a year ago to further evaluate stakeholder input for the planning and decision-making process. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., was among those who requested an extension of the EIS process, Froschauer said. Newhouse said in an Aug. 3, 2018, news release that he believed more input was needed from local communities before the EIS proceeded. 

"Local communities must be allowed to give input before any decision is made," he said in the release. "The communities most affected by the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement are stakeholders whose voices must be taken into account, and I appreciate the willingness of the involved federal agencies to listen."

According to Thursday's news release, the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service will after Oct. 24 review new comments and the 126,000 from the comment period in 2017 to guide the completion of a final EIS and a decision about whether, or how to, restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades.

The options included in the draft EIS range from leaving the existing grizzly bears as they are, or working over 25 to 100 years to bring the population to 200 bears through the release of those brought to the area.

The grizzly bear is listed as a threatened species throughout the United States, excluding in Alaska and Hawaii, under the Endangered Species Act. Washington listed the species as endangered in 1980.

There are estimated to be as few as 10 grizzly bears throughout the 9,800 square miles of habitat in the state's North Cascades, according to EIS documents. The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades was in 1996.

The near extinction of the bears in the state's North Cascades and the possibility of increasing their presence in the region has drawn a wide range of reactions from those who live, work and play in the region.

Skagit County residents have throughout the EIS process expressed a full range of opinions about the proposal, from a desire to save the species and the exhilaration of potentially seeing them in the wild to fear of maulings and interference with the livelihoods of cattle ranchers.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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