A federal proposal to return grizzly bears to the North Cascades drew mixed reaction in Cle Elum, where the first in a series of meetings was held last week.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service state supervisor Eric Rickerson said opponents probably outnumbered supporters.
The majority of concerns focused on safety. That’s something Lower Yakima Valley resident Bob Powers knows must be taken seriously based on his trips to Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. Despite some initial hesitation, he said he felt comfortable with the plan after talking with officials.
Others, such as Cle Elum resident Howard Briggs, said the designated grizzly area, extending from the Canadian border to Interstate 90, reaches too far south into populated areas.
“I don’t think it’s a good situation for the humans or the bears,” Briggs said. “It could cause a whole bunch of new problems. If you really want to see grizzly bears, go to Yellowstone.”
Kittitas County Parks and Recreation commissioner Van Peterson agreed it could create a high potential for conflict in northern Kittitas County. He and Briggs expressed little confidence their opinions would be considered.
Although grizzly bears are generally bigger than black bears and more likely to attack in defensive situations, Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Denise Shultz said they tend to be shyer than their significantly more common counterparts. She noted potential release areas would be far from people – mostly much farther north, where grizzlies could find plenty of berries and other vegetation to eat.
Conservation Northwest spokesperson Chase Gunnell said many opponents don’t fully understand the diversity of plants that contribute to a bear’s diet, and Shultz added many people wrongly believe grizzlies eat as much meat as wolves. She stressed the importance of education for potential, but rare, conflicts. Those could lead to removal of the involved bears, another potential difficulty that would complicate recovery efforts.
Even under the most ambitious of the four alternative plans being considered, it’s estimated the goal of 200 grizzly bears wouldn’t be reached for at least 25 years. That has Briggs, Wayne Mohler of Cle Elum and others worried that public lands could be closed. Shultz, however, said closures would only be temporary, due to scenarios such as bears feeding near a trail or bears with cubs.
Jeremy Franz, a supporter of the proposal and an avid hunter from Tacoma, said he’d prefer a plan to restore the grizzly bear population over the next 60 to 100 years, the second-most aggressive of the four alternatives.
Federal authorities are expected to make their decision on how to move forward later this year after reviewing public comments.
“I guess I have to admit one of the more exciting aspects of when I do go to Glacier is the fact that you might run into a (grizzly) bear,” Powers said. “As long as you know what to expect when you encounter a bear and how to neutralize any problems or avoid problems to being with, I don’t see any reason not to continue hiking in an area with bears.”