Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited North Cascades National Park on Friday voicing support for grizzly bear recovery efforts in the North Cascades — an action that reversed the agency’s previous position and seemingly stunned ranchers and other opponents.

“The grizzly bear is part of the environment, as it once was here. It’s part of a healthy environment,” said Zinke, speaking at the park’s administrative headquarters in Sedro-Woolley with a stuffed grizzly behind him.

Those words drew the ire of cattlemen who say the plan is harmful not only to ranchers and Washington state residents but also to the environment and economy.

“For more than a year we have heard the secretary talk about being a better neighbor, but unfortunately actions speak louder than words,” Ethan Lane, executive director of Federal Lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in a prepared statement. “Reintroducing as many as 200 man-eating predators into an area already reeling from exploding gray-wolf populations is anything but neighborly.

“This decision won’t just impact ranchers — it’s a blow for the entire North Cascades ecosystem, the safety of locals and visitors, and the local economy, too. In fact, the only beneficiaries of an action like this will be the radical environmental activists that support this type of ill-advised ecosystem tinkering.”

And, in a statement sent to the Yakima Herald-Republic, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said national agencies seem to be ignoring what he’s heard from his constituents.

“I am disappointed that Secretary Zinke did not first speak with me about his support of reintroducing grizzly bears in the North Cascades,” Newhouse said. “Local communities in Central Washington thought reintroducing grizzly bears was a bad idea when proposed by the (Obama) administration and it would be just as bad an idea if entertained by the (Trump) administration.”

Cattlemen and all concerned with public safety will certainly have their say in the process, Zinke said. “But this is best for the environment, and the local community.”

Education will continue to be important and the different conservation and recreation groups involved offer plenty of resources to ensure the coexistence of humans and bears in wilderness areas, said Conservation Northwest spokesman Chase Gunnell.

In January 2017, officials released three options for relocating grizzly bears to the North Cascades, all of which would have the goal of establishing a sustainable population of about 200 in a wild region believed to be capable of supporting 280 bears. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Ann Froschauer said one of those plans, or possibly a modification of one of those plans, would be selected as a preferred alternative in a final environmental impact statement tentatively scheduled for release in the fall, and the “record of decision” is expected by the end of the year.

But in late 2017, Zinke’s office put a hold on the effort, around the same time the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially expected to make a final decision. But now it seems review by those agencies will resume.

More than 125,000 public comments have been received on the reintroduction plan and Zinke noted those will be reviewed before a final decision is reached by the end of 2018. Biologists believe fewer than 10 grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades where thousands once lived and they will go extinct in the region unless a relocation plan is implemented.

In a 10-minute speech expressing his support, Zinke highlighted the cultural and spiritual importance of grizzly bears to local tribes. He also praised their value to the ecosystem.

“I grew up on the flanks of Glacier National Park,” Zinke said. “And I have dealt with grizzly bears all my life … I’m in support of the great bear, and in support of doing this right. This is not reintroduction of a rabbit.”

Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said people might not recognize the predators’ role in keeping the ecosystem healthy.

“When they go out and they forage from these roots, they are digging up soil,” Krehbiel said. “The common adage is wherever the grizzly bear walks, the earth is healthy and whole.”

• Lynda V. Mapes, environmental reporter for The Seattle Times, contributed to this report.

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