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Editorial: We could bear grizzly bears

April 27, 2017 GMT

On the list of things we should worry about, the impact on Kittitas County of reintroduction of grizzly bears in the North Cascades probably does not make the top 10 or even top 100.

This past week the Kittitas County commissioners sent a letter to the National Park Service opposing a proposal to reintroduce grizzlies to the North Cascades. The Park Service is in the midst of developing an environmental impact statement on whether to reintroduce the animals.

From a purely parochial standpoint, Kittitas County is on the southern end of what is considered the North Cascades, making us a less likely bear destination. Of course, the bears don’t carry a map clearly delineating their “recovery area,” so if the animals are successfully reintroduced, there’s a chance they could spend time in our county.

In their letter, the commissioners cited concerns with the impact of the bear plan on public access to lands. If the reintroduction eventually leads to limits on public access to forested lands that would be a concern. Outdoor recreation is a crucial component of our economy. Since so much of the county is publicly owned, access is an issue and we certainly have enough history with changing regulations on allowed uses of public lands to have a healthy skepticism about wildlife recovery areas.

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But concerns with public safety and whether bears would lead to fewer people using the woods are unfounded.

Grizzlies are a brown bear. We have black bears in our state and county — they are known to wander into Roslyn to snack on tree fruit that has fallen to the ground — so we’re certainly not a bear-free zone.

But since there are so few grizzlies in the state, let’s look at Yellowstone National Park as a point of comparison.

The thing about a grizzly bear attack is that when one happens, it makes the news. That in itself is an indication of the rarity. According to the National Park Service website, between 1980 and 2015 there were 38 people injured in grizzly bear attacks in Yellowstone. Over that time there were 104 million visitors, that put the risk of attack at 1 in 2.7 million.

During the park’s history (1872-2015), eight people have been killed by bears. Conservation Northwest, admittedly a pro-wildlife group, has a list activities where deaths occur with more frequency — falling off a ladder, hitting a deer while driving, getting stung by a bee, getting mauled by a dog and driving.

Driving creates an interesting dilemma. We are well aware of the fatality rate on Interstate 90 in this county. According to the statistics if you saw a grizzly and had the option of getting in your car and speeding away, statistically speaking you’d be better off taking your chances with the bear.

Also, if we ended up with grizzlies in the county there is no indication that it would scare people away from walking in the woods. For every person who will not walk behind a tree for fear of encountering a bear, there are far more who will venture deep into the woods on the chance of catching sight of a bear. Yellowstone National Park, with its grizzly population, continues to be a popular attraction.

In the big picture, Kittitas County is not a major player in the grizzly bear reintroduction drama. If you do have concerns, chances are that whatever happens, we’re going to be OK.