MOUNT VERNON — Skagit, Chelan, Okanogan and Snohomish county officials shared concerns Monday about a proposal to restore a larger grizzly bear population in the North Cascades with the federal agencies collaborating on an environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the proposal.
County and some city officials felt they weren’t included in the EIS process, and requested the coordination meeting with the federal agencies at the Skagit County Commissioners Office.
“We are all responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the people in our communities, and to that end something as significant as this EIS really needs to have the concerns that we articulate on behalf of our communities addressed,” Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said.
Margaret Byfield, executive director of American Stewards of Liberty, said federal agencies responsible for managing land and wildlife are required by law to coordinate their plans with the local governments that will be affected.
American Stewards of Liberty is a nonprofit that defends and protects private property rights, according to its website.
Byfield said that up until Monday’s meeting, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had failed to coordinate with local governments during the EIS process.
“The counties and local governments aren’t trying to tell you how to manage the land or manage the species, what they’re doing is telling you what they must have in order to ensure that they can fulfill their responsibilities, which is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people,” she said.
The National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a draft of the EIS in January. Public comment is being taken through Friday.
The idea of increasing the grizzly bear population in the North Cascades has brought about strong opinions from Skagit County residents.
Several shared their opinions — ranging from excitement about the chance to see grizzlies in the wild to fear about finding grizzlies in their backyards — at a meeting with the county commissioners in February.
The grizzly bear is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in every state except Alaska. Washington state considers the species endangered.
The North Cascades is one of six zones in the western United States where federal agencies are working to or considering restoring larger grizzly bear populations.
Retired wildlife biologist Paul Fielder, who lives in a grizzly bear recovery zone in Montana, shared a study Monday that showed a grizzly bear from the recovery zone in which he lives traveled 175 miles in one year.
“When you put a grizzly bear in the North Cascades you don’t know where they’re going to go, but you can bet they’re going to travel,” he said.
The draft EIS for restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades includes four options, from doing nothing new to manage the estimated 10 grizzly bears remaining in the area to bringing the population to 200 bears within 25 years.
To increase the population, grizzly bears would be brought to the North Cascades from other places, such as Montana and British Columbia, according to the draft EIS.
Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said he doesn’t think bringing grizzly bears to the North Cascades is a good idea.
He said grizzly bears could impact the local economy, protected fisheries and the safety of those who live and work in area forest lands.
“In Skagit County, we have substantial risks already. We have the potential for an earthquake, the eruption of a volcano, lahars and forest fires ... Bringing in grizzly bears and creating another unsafe condition that doesn’t need to happen is a significant concern,” Dahlstedt said.
Skagit County and Chelan County, which share a border in the North Cascades, have similar land use, safety and economic concerns about the potential for more grizzly bears in the area.
Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay said grizzly bears could threaten his county’s rural communities, ranchers, recreation and tourism businesses, and habitat restoration for other wildlife.
“Take into consideration the impacts to our citizens who have entrusted us, their local elected representatives, with the responsibility of protecting them from adverse environment, economic and physical impacts,” Overbay said.
Hamilton-area beef rancher Randy Good, who is vice president of Skagit County Cattleman’s Association, said losing a cow could cost a rancher $3,500.
He said the draft EIS does not adequately take into account the cost grizzly bears could have on ranchers’ livelihoods, or include a plan for addressing those types of conflicts should they arise.
Byfield said that is a problem with the draft EIS.
“The people that live here, they are the infrastructure of the county,” she said. “You can’t just look at, ‘Well a cow costs this much and our model shows there should only be a handful of losses and therefore it’s really not a significant impact’ .. The real impact is much greater.”
Byfield said the draft EIS “is ripe for litigation.”
She recommended Skagit County formally request the federal agencies either start the EIS process over or do a supplemental EIS addressing whether the grizzly bear should be restored to the North Cascades and how area communities would be affected.
“This is not the time for the agencies to put their foot on the gas to get the study out,” Byfield said. “I would really recommend great caution to the federal agencies to step back and take a fresh look at this process.”
North Cascades National Park Service Complex Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich said the federal agencies can continue working with the counties past the end of the public comment period, and that it will take months to categorize and respond to the comments received.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Supervisor Eric Rickerson said as of Monday evening about 123,000 comments had been received.
The draft EIS and related documents are available online at parkplanning.nps.gov/grizzlydeis.
Comments are accepted on the website and at the offices of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 Highway 20, Sedro-Woolley, 98284.