A group of Republicans are calling for the Biden administration to allow the public additional time to voice concerns with a proposal to release grizzly bear populations in a federally managed forest area in northern Washington.
Led by Congressional Western Caucus Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., the six GOP lawmakers asked Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Martha Williams and National Park Service (NPS) Director Charles Sams in a letter Friday to extend the public comment period on the proposal to 180 days. They also requested the agencies host additional in-person meetings with community members that would be impacted by the proposal.
“Time and again, northern Washingtonians have expressed their deep concerns about the introduction of grizzlies into the North Cascades, as they are a danger to the safety of their communities,” Newhouse said in a statement.
“Despite this opposition, the Biden administration is set on moving forward with the introduction of these apex predators against the will of locals,” the Washington lawmaker continued. “That’s why I’m joining with my colleagues to demand an extension of the public comment period on this proposed relocation of bears so that the Washingtonians impacted by this have adequate time to review and respond.”
Late last month, the FWS and NPS unveiled a joint proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears throughout North Cascades National Park in Washington near the U.S.-Canada border. The proposal included three options, two that would involve actively restoring populations of the threatened apex predator species and one “no action” alternative that would maintain current management practices.
As part of the proposal, the federal government would release up to seven grizzly bears annually into the North Cascades ecosystem over the course of the next five to 10 years. The administration’s goal would be to establish a population of roughly 200 bears in the coming decades.
According to NPS, grizzly bears occupied the North Cascades and served as an “essential part of the ecosystem” for thousands of years. However, in the 20th century, as a result of aggressive hunting practices, the species was driven into near extinction and the last confirmed sighting of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades ecosystem was in 1996.
“If this part of our natural heritage is restored, it should be done in a way that ensures communities, property, and the animals can all coexist peacefully,” Hugh Morrison, the regional FWS director, said in a statement on Sept. 28.
In their letter Friday, the GOP lawmakers said the federal government is “once again circumventing state law and attempting to move forward with the introduction of grizzlies.”
Plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades dates back to the Obama administration. Then, after significant state opposition led by Newhouse, the Trump administration concluded that grizzly bears would not be restored in the ecosystem.
Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt noted in July 2020 that grizzly bears are not in danger of extinction and that his agency could manage populations across their existing range.
But late last year, following extensive litigation from environmental groups, the Biden administration announced it would again review whether to move forward with restoration, a process that led to the proposal last month.
“We have previously provided extensive comments opposing grizzly bear reintroduction into our local communities,” the commissioners of Chelan County, Washington, which is located near North Cascades, wrote to the NPS in December. “We continue to oppose grizzly bear reintroduction given the likely negative impacts to public safety, economic development, recreation opportunities and the overall livelihood of our rural communities.”
“The federal agencies leading this effort have generally failed to address these concerns and have failed to engage in any meaningful way Chelan County and other neighboring counties in the proposed grizzly bear restoration area,” they added in their letter.
Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee; Russ Fulcher of Idaho; Cliff Bentz of Oregon; Harriet Hageman of Wyoming; and Matt Rosendale of Montana joined the letter.
The NPS and FWS didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.