Grizzly reintroduction halt makes sense for rural ranchers, hikers

Jul 24, 2020

Ranchers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts need more apex predators like summers need more wildfires. Reintroducing grizzly bears in the North Cascades would add to the stress of local herds while they are grazing on summer pastures, make calving on the range more difficult and deadly, and increase the risk of cattle mortality beyond the already impressive list of predator risks.

In a recent announcement, Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earned the ire of groups like the Center for Biological Diversity – and the praise of the region’s ranchers – when he announced the plan to reintroduce grizzlies in the Northeast Cascades had been scrapped. The idea, first introduced in 2015, would have supplemented the grizzly population in an effort to help it recover from its current count of approximately 20 bears in a 9,800-mile area in Washington state.

Bears are part of our ecosystem already, with Washington’s black bear population estimated to be between 25,000-30,000. And, while bears are primarily vegetation foragers, they do eat game and other animals, including livestock. 

At the urging of Congressman Dan Newhouse, Interior hosted a listening session in Okanogan County in 2019 that brought a huge crowd to discuss the reintroduction of grizzlies to the area. During that meeting, ranchers spoke of concerns for the well-being of their livestock and wildlife advocates spoke of wanting to see the ecosystem made whole by the robust return of a historically native species.

However, the push to bring more predators into an area already ravaged by predators is a daunting ask for the people who make their livelihood off the land in the proposed release area. Ranchers and outfitters in the Methow Valley already contend with black bears, gray wolves, cougars, lynx, and wolverines to name a few. 

The population explosion of the gray wolf throughout Northeastern Washington has been a much-discussed topic with a great deal of passion on both sides. For ranchers who are losing livestock – some of which will never be accounted for – and outfitters who are losing important hiking, camping, and other recreation opportunities, the depredation of their livelihoods cannot be over-stated. Gray wolf proponents see the push for lethal management from the livestock community as selfish and unnecessary, even harmful to the overall recovery of the species in our state.

The difference between the reintroduction of grizzly bears and the reemergence of gray wolves is finite but important. A mating pair of gray wolves migrated back into Washington state in 2007; they were not brought here by federal officials. The concern among these groups of people is valid when they discuss the intentional reintroduction of grizzlies into their “neighborhood.” 

Wild animals are just that – wild – and typically fight shy of people. Hikers and outfitters who are alert, educated, and prepared likely have few additional worries to consider beyond assuaging the fears of their clientele and making up for potential lost revenue. Ranchers, on the other hand, are not raising concerns for themselves but rather for the animals in their care. A healthy, well-cared for animal is one that matures faster, produces better, and, ultimately, makes for a better finished product.

Advocates for grizzly reintroduction have indicated they intend to file suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service for dropping the plan, citing the Endangered Species Act. The ESA, written in 1973 and revisited in 2019, notes grizzles are a threatened species in the lower 48 states of the United States and shall not be “taken” unless in self-defense or in defense of others. They also point to the 143,000 comments collected during the public comment period on the reintroduction as evidence that there is wide-spread support for reintroduction of the species rather than just geographical support.

Secretary Bernhardt noted the primary reason for the ending of the discussion was local opposition to reintroduction of grizzlies in the Northeast Cascades.

Whether the reintroduction is fully off the table appears to be up to the court to decide. For now, with other predator management discussions underway, the decision to halt the program is a wise one for communities in the Northeast Cascades who are still struggling with the effects of a large, ever-growing gray wolf population. Let’s deal with one predator at a time.

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