County Commissioners Hired Far Right Group to Help Thwart Grizzly Restoration

Grizzly Bear

By Tim Manns

In early 2017 Skagit County’s Commissioners signed a personal services agreement with American Stewards of Liberty. The “Stewards” website describes this business as, “a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting private property rights, defending the use of our land, and restoring local control.” The special target of “Stewards”, though not the only one, is the federal Endangered Species Act, whose protections for plants and animals approaching extinction “Stewards” views as impositions on private property rights, impositions on their idea of “Liberty”.

The so-called “Stewards” calls its favored legal tool “coordination,” short-hand for the notion that federal law requires federal agencies to coordinate land use plans and decisions, including ones about species protected under the Endangered Species Act, with local jurisdictions to the point of giving states, counties, and towns veto power. Federal courts reject this interpretation of the cited laws (the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act), but American Stewards of Liberty rolls on nonetheless.

County Supremacy

“Coordination” is a polite term for county supremacy, which in its most extreme form recognizes counties as the highest level of legitimate government. Though more subtle and sophisticated than some, American Stewards of Liberty sits squarely among the radical right organizations fighting public ownership of land, particularly national ownership. This is the group on which Skagit County’s Commissioners and their Chelan and Okanogan counterparts agreed in 2017 to each spend $5,000 of public funds.

Skagit County’s long-time, now former, lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Bob Weidner, is closely connected with “Stewards.” Spring 2017 was the opening act of the Trump Administration, and Mr. Weidner was busily compiling a list of environmental laws and regulations he and his clients wanted undone: any Obama administration actions addressing climate change, the designation of new national monuments, the Endangered Species Act, and much more.

It was the Endangered Species Act that Skagit’s Commissioners were apparently finding particularly irksome in 2017.  After many years of inaction on restoring grizzly bears to the wild North Cascades, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, were finally working on a plan to move ahead.

Commissioners as wildlife managers?

Although wildlife management doesn’t appear on the county website’s list of Skagit Commissioner responsibilities, all three Commissioners seem to have decided they needed to derail federal efforts at grizzly restoration. Their stated reason was their responsibility for public safety.

As is often the case with the Commissioners’ decisions, the reasons for this determination are unclear. There was no public discussion, no news release or other public communication. Was it their personal fears, concerns expressed by some of the more outspoken residents of the county, an opportunity to pose as protectors of the public, or just what? Whatever the Commissioners’ motivations, American Stewards of Liberty appeared to offer the expertise needed to keep the Endangered Species Act from being implemented in Skagit County.

The  Executive Director of “Stewards”, Margaret Byfield, grew up on a Nevada ranch, daughter of the now late Wayne Hage. Mr. Hage’s troubles with the U.S. Forest Service began with his refusal to apply for a permit when grazing his cattle on public land adjacent to his property. He parlayed years of court cases into a career writing and speaking to right wing, anti-public lands groups, part of the original Sagebrush Rebellion. Wayne Hage’s battle against national ownership and management of land collectively belonging to all Americans lives on in his daughter’s work.

Byfield orchestrates show trial for Commissioners

As part of her contract with Skagit and Chelan counties, Margaret Byfield arranged a “coordination” meeting which took place in the Skagit County Commissioners’ hearing room the afternoon of April 24, 2017. At this meeting Ms. Byfield sat at the table usually occupied by county staff. Beside her was Paul Fielder, a wildlife biologist retired from the Chelan Public Utility District, living in Thompson Falls, Montana.

Presiding was Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, flanked by Commissioners Ron Wesen and Ken Dahlstedt. Also present at the front were Okanogan and Chelan County Commissioners, a County Councilmember from Snohomish County, and the Mayor of Darrington.

From their elevated perch, this group peered down at four people: Karen Taylor-Goodrich, North Cascades National Park Superintendent, two members of her staff, and Eric Rickerson, Washington State Supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Notice of the meeting was kept low-key, and consequently the audience consisted of the few people to whom word of the meeting had leaked and the several witnesses pre-arranged to testify.

What ensued was in its look and feel a show trial. The elected officials peppered the federal employees with pointed questions and accusations, voiced lurid fantasies of what would happen were grizzly bears loosed upon the land, and called on a select group of individuals supposedly representing the public to hold forth in a similar vein.

At great length, Mr. Fielder,  whose background clearly included no particular expertise in grizzly bear biology, described how grizzly bears, with their large range, would leave the wild Cascades and show up as far afield as Anacortes. They would pause to forage in tulip fields, he told us, because grizzlies eat bulbs and roots, presumably when not busy attacking people.

Commissioner Janicki expressed concern for timber workers whose safety, she speculated, would be at risk. Commissioner Dahlstedt lamented that grizzlies would gobble up spawning salmon, undoing all the fish habitat restoration work in Skagit County, and would attack children as well. There was no allowance for public comment by the few people attending who weren’t part of the orchestrated show.

So called ‘expert’ Fielder has anti-public lands pedigree

One of many questions prompted by this incident is why sophisticated attorney Margaret Byfield chose Paul Fielder as expert witness. Was it his having resided in Chelan County and worked in some way as a wildlife biologist? Maybe she simply felt no need to have an actual bear biologist present the information about bear biology, though there are highly qualified, even far famed ones like Chris Morgan, in Washington State. But actual experts might not have made the case that Stewards of Liberty wanted to deliver for their clients and that the Commissioners wanted to hear.

Mr. Fielder had the ideological pedigree that gave assurance he’d say what was needed. Mr. Fielder, you see, is married to Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder, also CEO of the American Lands Council, and supporter of the 2016 armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Alton, Utah-based American Lands Council is the principal group working to force nationally-owned public lands to be given to states and counties, another stalwart of the anti-government right wing fringe.

Skagit County was quietly a dues paying member of the Council until that fact came to light in 2016. Outraged public reaction forced the County Commissioners to cancel the membership. Stewards of Liberty, then, was not the first far right organization on which the Skagit County Commissioners chose to spend public funds.

Endangered Species Protections

The Endangered Species Act passed Congress in 1973 by an overwhelming bi-partisan vote of 355 to 4. Two years after President Richard Nixon signed this popular measure into law, the grizzly bear in the Lower 48 states was listed under the Act’s provisions as a species in danger of extinction within a substantial portion of its range.

At one time grizzlies occurred over most of the U.S. west of the Mississippi. By 1975 they occupied only 2% of their former range south of Canada. The great bear had been numerous enough in the Cascades that Hudson’s Bay Company records list many hundreds of grizzly pelts being taken from these mountains in the 19th century. In the North Cascades, the last grizzly shot died in September 1967 in Fisher Basin, a year before Congress established North Cascades National Park.

Fisher Basin in the North Cascade
Fisher Basin in the North Cascades is the place where the last grizzly was shot in 1967. Photo by Timothy Manns.

The North Cascades are one of the wildest, most rugged areas in the lower 48 states. The national park, parts of adjacent national forests and state lands, and a small amount of private land comprise the 6 million plus acres designated as one of 6 grizzly bear recovery areas under the plan required by the Endangered Species Act. These roughly 9,600 square miles, over 6 million acres, constitute one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land remaining in the lower 48. 

When species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the relevant national land managing agencies, such as the National Park Service, are obligated to act to increase the species numbers to the point that the animal can avoid extinction. During the Skagit “coordination” meeting the federal employees in the dock were being lambasted for doing what the law requires of them.

Ask the real bear experts

Had they been asked, bear biologists with expertise in the life history of the grizzly would have reassured the Skagit Commissioners that the bears would not come down out of the mountains and attack the good people of Skagit County. Instead, the Commissioners listened to Paul Fielder and “Steward of Liberty” Margaret Byfield who had a different agenda. Why did the Commissioners make this choice?

Washington State is home to prominent bear biologists with immense credibility whom they could have called: Chris Morgan in Whatcom County, Dr. Bill Gaines in Leavenworth, Ann Braaten in Sedro-Woolley, to name a few.

At a 2017 public meeting in Concrete for residents to hear from county electeds and department heads, Commissioner Wesen said that the Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service plan called for dropping grizzly bears randomly into the North Cascades, from where the bears would then head for the towns and valleys where people live. We can only speculate about Commissioner Wesen’s reasons for making such a remark.

The actual grizzly restoration plan

The Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service went through a long and laborious process presenting information to the public, taking public comment on alternative approaches to restoration and the Environmental Impact Statement. Over 120,000 comments were submitted, the vast majority supporting restoration of the great bear (already required under the Endangered Species Act), the great majority favoring the agency’s preferred alternative.

As the plan states, “Alternative C (Incremental Restoration) would seek to release up to 5 to 7 grizzly bears per year for 5 to 10 years to achieve an initial population of 25 bears intended to reestablish reproduction in the North Cascades Ecosystem. It is anticipated that (this) would result in the achievement of the restoration goal of 200 bears within approximately 60 to 100 years.”

Grizzly bears with no history of adverse interactions with people would be moved to carefully chosen areas in the wild, remote, uninhabited North Cascades with the correct habitat. A century from now, 200 grizzly bears would occupy a wild, uninhabited area the size of Vermont. Seeing a grizzly, even in 2120, would be a rare event.

This is the scenario based on extensive scientific knowledge of grizzly bear biology that the Skagit County Commissioners, assuming they had read the plan, found so threatening that the American Stewards of Liberty had to be hired. For the thousands of dollars paid to the Stewards, Skagit and two other counties got the “coordination” meeting and a long letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke demanding a halt to the North Cascades planning and, further, delisting of the grizzly. (Note that Whatcom County’s Council voted to support restoration of the bear. The Snohomish County Council remained neutral.) The “Stewards” letter failed.

In March 2018 Secretary Zinke visited North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro-Woolley explicitly to announce his belief that grizzlies belong in the North Cascades. He directed the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to accelerate completion of the plan. While this surprised local officials, they didn’t quit their opposition.

Grizzly restoration shelved

In 2020, Zinke’s successor, energy industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, reversed Zinke in response to Congressman Dan Newhouse’s need to assuage his eastern Washington constituents. The Skagit County Commissioners once again joined commissioners in several other counties to oppose implementing the Endangered Species Act. For now, planning to restore the grizzly bear to the North Cascade Ecosystem has been halted.

The saga of restoring the grizzly to the wild Cascades will continue. Skagit County Commissioners will have another chance to consider whether wildlife management is truly part of their portfolio or something better left to the people whose job and expertise it truly is.

Nationally-owned public lands, the heritage of every American, that lie within county boundaries seem to often rankle county officials, making them an easy audience for far right groups. These lands do not directly generate county tax revenues nor require county services, though because of them counties receive free federal money from two programs, Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools.

Even though Washington State and other western states gave up all claim to federal lands at statehood, it still bothers some county government leaders that these vast acreages, property of all Americans, lie beyond their control.

A moral and ethical imperative

The Endangered Species Act is based on a moral and ethical imperative embraced by the people’s representatives in Congress and by the vast majority of Americans. This imperative recognizes the reality that Earth is the home we share with many other living things and that it is not for us to cause their demise.

We Skagit residents are fortunate to live close enough to the wild Cascades to get to know them if we choose. With patience and luck, we can observe and marvel at the creatures that live there. With thought and care, we can do so without conflict.

Restoration should not be taken as a time or reason to use public funds to consort with right wing groups. We human beings are responsible for the near extinction of the great bear and its removal from the natural life of the Cascades. It was wrong to do that, just as it was wrong to cause the near extinction of salmon and other creatures. Now it’s time to do the right thing and focus on restoration.

It’s time too for public transparency to become the rule in Skagit County government – transparency about the organizations our county leaders choose to engage with, the issues they choose to take on, and the expertise they choose to tap.

Tim Manns moved to Skagit County in 1992 to work on the staff of North Cascades National Park. In retirement, he volunteers for conservation organizations dedicated to keeping the Skagit a special place.

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