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Lawsuit challenges failure to release records on North Cascades grizzly recovery plan

UPDATED: Tue., July 21, 2020

File photo – A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Conservation groups are challenging a recent decision by the Trump administration cancelling restoration of North Cascade grizzlies.  (AP)
File photo – A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Conservation groups are challenging a recent decision by the Trump administration cancelling restoration of North Cascade grizzlies. (AP)

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration on Tuesday, July 21, for failing to release public records on the termination of a program to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades in Washington.

“The return of grizzly bears would be a big boon to the North Cascades, so the Trump administration aims to hide the facts about its cancelation of this popular program,” said Sophia Ressler, an attorney at the Center. “The secrecy surrounding this issue has persisted for years, and it’s mind-boggling that the Interior Department has taken its anti-wildlife agenda to this level. Our suit aims to get to the bottom of the administration’s distorted priorities on grizzlies and other imperiled species.”

In December 2017, the Center filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records related to statements made by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about terminating a plan to restore grizzly bears to the North Cascades. In the wake of subsequent public outrage, Zinke retracted his statements and announced the plan would move forward.

But on July 10, the Trump administration again announced it was pulling the plug on the plan, this time making it official with a termination notice. The terminated program would have involved transporting a number of grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem, which biologists believe may be the only way to recover the population.

The Center filed its initial Freedom of Information Act request in December 2017. Despite strict deadlines requiring a timely response, the Department of the Interior has failed to disclose any of the requested records.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., addresses that failure to act. Attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice must now respond within 30 days of service of this complaint.

The North Cascades is one of the largest wild areas in the lower 48 states, encompassing more than 95,000 square miles in north-central Washington centered on North Cascades National Park. It also includes large areas of surrounding national forest and an incredible array of plants and animals. According to scientists the area contains prime habitat that could support approximately 280 grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears historically ranged from Alaska to Mexico, with an estimated 50,000 bears occupying the western half of the contiguous United States. As Europeans settled the American West, the bears were shot, poisoned and trapped to near-extinction. Today fewer than 2,000 grizzlies are found in five isolated populations in the northern Rocky Mountains and North Cascades.

The North Cascades represents one of six primary recovery areas identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A sustainable population there is necessary for grizzly bear recovery in the contiguous United States.

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