Okanogan is a small town nestled in the foothills of Washington’s northern Cascade mountains, where nearby ranches and homesteads butt up to public forestland.
One of those homes is a cabin in the woods where Bill Bruton and his wife have lived for the past 15 years. He’s not too keen to have grizzly bears as neighbors — a proposition that’s drawn dozens of people to meetings hosted by federal agencies in Okanogan, Winthrop and Wenatchee, Washington.
The way Bruton sees it, the danger posed by grizzlies for kids out hiking, deer hunters, and livestock make it pretty obvious they wouldn’t be making a welcomed return. So he’s a little discouraged to have to plead his case to federal wildlife managers who are considering reintroducing the animals to his part of the state.
“I don’t know what good these meetings do because we keep on going to meetings and meetings, and nothing ever goes our way,” Bruton said.
Other residents chimed in at the meeting Bruton attended in Okanogan: Keep the bears in Alaska and Canada. Don’t bring “another predator” here.
Although emotions sometimes ran high, it was nothing like the meeting held in this same town 22 years ago.
Back in 1993, ranchers and townspeople raised their voices when the federal government asked what they thought about bringing grizzly bears into their backyards. Spit flew in the faces of officials during the infamous meeting.
One man who attended both meetings was Chris Servheen. He’s studied grizzlies his entire career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Servheen was on the ground team to start grizzly recovery efforts back in the early 1980s. He still thinks it’s a good idea.
“It’s good to get started on some efforts here in the North Cascades because these bears need a lot of help,” Servheen said.
It’s been during Servheen’s career that the endangered bears have built sustainable populations in the Yellowstone National Park and an ecosystem around the continental divide where Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness are. Now, there are more than 2,000 grizzly bears in those two areas combined.
Servheen has also helped reintroduce grizzly bears in northwest Montana — where people were just as upset about the idea as they are in Okanogan.
In the early 1990s, biologists brought in 14 bears to a grizzly recovery zone in that part of Montana, two bears at a time. Servheen said since then none of the bears have attacked people or livestock. The population has increased to 45.
In Washington’s North Cascades grizzly bear numbers are so few that no one has reported spotting one since 1996.
Biologists say it will take up to a century before grizzlies reach a sustainable population in the North Cascades. That’s because they live a long time and don’t have cubs until they’re pretty old.
Servheen said that means his great-grandchildren could see a recovered grizzly bear population in these mountains, about 200 bears.
“That’s why we do this, so that future generations have something to see. Grizzly bears occupy about four percent of their former range in the lower 48. We don’t want to relegate them to Canada and Alaska,” Servheen said.
Joe Scott, the international conservation director with Conservation Northwest, said having grizzlies in an area means the ecosystem is healthy.
“They’re one of the missing pieces of the ecological puzzle of the Cascades. And we’re responsible for its disappearance from the landscape, and we should be responsible for helping it return,” Scott said.
The federal government hasn’t officially proposed any options. That will come next summer. Right now, options could range from bringing in grizzly from more healthy populations to doing nothing, although Servheen said that’s not really going to work.
“Such a small population is going to eventually go extinct without some assistance,” Servheen said.
It’s not only ranchers who are concerned. Hiking and climbing groups say they want to make sure the forests and mountains stay safe for recreation.
Servheen said it’s all a matter of taking precautions: hanging packs, wearing bells. He says bears don’t want to run into people any more than people want to run into them.
Grizzly bear meetings continue this week:
Cle Elum, 5-7:30 p.m., Monday, Putnum Centennial Center Meeting Room
Seattle, 5-7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Seattle Pacific University Bertona Classroom 1
Bellingham, 5-7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Bellingham Central Library Lecture Room
You can also make public comments online.