On Feb. 28, I attended an informational meeting about the draft plan to restore grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem. I believe animals and ecosystems should receive more protection and I’m largely in favor of the plan to restore grizzlies here, but I listened through the whole meeting, not speaking a word. This wasn’t a forum for debate. I wanted to hear to the perspectives of other people who think differently. There are times when it’s more insightful to listen than to speak.
I took copious notes, trying to capture the essence of what was said. Below are a few paraphrased questions and comments from local Stehekin residents. I know who made each comment, but I won’t divulge their identities. I’m sure they’d share the same opinions with anyone who asked, but the meeting was not a formal public open house where people could provide testimony that would be entered into the official record, and as such they probably didn’t expect anyone to broadcast their name and comments all over the internet.
Many of the first few questions were about bear biology and the practicalities of restoration. How did you determine 200 bears (the number of animals the plan aims to restore)? What happens if Alternative C doesn’t work? What is prime grizzly habitat? What’s the typical grizzly bear territory? Will the habitat still be suitable for these bears if the climate changes?
Then the comments and questions drifted into more contentious territory. Grizzly bears and endangered species are words that provoke strong emotions. Worry, loss, skepticism, and suspicion were many of the emotions local residents expressed. Bears could potentially bring more unwanted government regulation. Residents, understandably, expressed concerns about safety and loss of access to land. Few who spoke at the meeting seemed to believe the active restoration of bears is desirable.
Residents wondered about bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray. One person even read a lengthy description of a bear attack from this Facebook post. He also asked whether bears would inhibit the reopening of the upper Stehekin Valley Road, which has been a long standing issue for some local residents. The same person who read the bear attack description also expressed the opinion that humans are part of nature and the extirpation of grizzly bears across most of their former range in the Lower 48 was natural and okay.
A couple of people seemed to question the historical presence of grizzly bears in the ecosystem, a conclusion that surprised me, since the historical and archeological record confirms grizzlies were here. One person suggested that native tribes didn’t settle permanently because the mountainous terrain was rough and grizzlies could’ve been one of the factors.
To their credit, the representatives for North Cascades National Park Service Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service avoided debating any point. That would’ve been inappropriate given the context of the meeting. They did explain, however, that these lands are federal and must be managed in the national interest. Local interests, therefore, are not necessarily the most important. They also explained how this population of bears could be designated as experimental under section 10(j) of Endangered Species Act. 10(j) status would allow more flexible management of the restored grizzly population compared to a population listed strictly as threatened and endangered.
Many of the concerns boil down to a difference in worldview from my own. Many people believe bears don’t need more space, especially if their space comes at the cost to people. They exist in healthy numbers throughout much of British Columbia and Alaska. Additionally, grizzly bears are not needed in North Cascades to fulfill a missing ecosystem function. Why make the effort to restore bears?
I wrote this post not to criticize, debate, or debunk any point. I wrote it because if you’re like me, you often do not have the opportunity to hear opposing perspectives concerning wildlife conservation issues. Those of us who think wildlife and wildlife habitat should be given greater levels of protection need to carefully consider the wants and needs of other people. Sure, I can read or listen to so-called balanced news articles about the grizzly bear restoration plan, but that’s not the same as listening to your neighbors, many of whom may feel very differently about the issue.
You can comment on the draft North Cascades grizzly bear restoration plan through March 14, 2017.