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A wild week in Washington

By Nathan Rice
High Country News

Recent grizzly bear and wolf discoveries put the wild back into Washington.

In a remote alpine valley in 1968, Rocky Wilson shot the last grizzly bear to be killed in the North Cascades. Since then, biologists have longed for proof that any grizzlies remain; some wondered if they were all gone. But with the click of a cell phone camera, hiker Joe Sebille brought the North Cascades grizzly bear back to life. In early July, experts confirmed that his photos, taken last October above the town of Marblemount, were indeed the first verified grizzly sighting since 1996 -- and the first photographs since Rocky Wilson's kill over 40 years ago.

"These are the most critically endangered grizzlies in North America," said Doug Zimmer, external affairs director for US Fish and Wildlife, to The Seattle Times. "We're delighted to see that they're still hanging in."

Within hours of the news, the North Cascades grizzly was tweeting, its clandestine spokesperson joking that the photo was actually of a marmot. The next day, the sighting made headlines in London.

Whether the revelation and concomitant excitement will inspire a meaningful recovery effort remains to be seen. For decades, North Cascades grizzly bear recovery work has languished in a lack of funding and political will. The first step on the road to a comeback is a $2 million environmental impact statement, which would study recovery options and gather public input. The EIS findings could potentially lead to the introduction of additional bears from Canada to bolster the estimated 10 to 20 grizzlies left in Washington. But the already cash-strapped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must prioritize Cascadian grizzly recovery for this to happen. To date, the Service has focused on other more endangered species and grizzly populations in the Rockies, which has kept North Cascades grizzlies -- the last salmon-eating grizzlies in the lower 48 -- staring down the path to extinction.

Regardless of what the sighting might mean for management, though, the image of a grizzly's dark silhouette on the icy backdrop of the Cascades gives hope to conservationists that a lasting population is possible. Education and sanitation efforts have set the stage for their presence while ongoing hair-snag surveys could help determine how many more grizzlies are out there, and inform future conservation efforts.

As if the excitement over the grizzly sighting wasn't enough, more big news recently howled out of the Cascades: Wolves.

On July 5, state wildlife officials confirmed the presence of the state's fourth wolf pack -- dubbed the Teanaway Pack -- near the town of Cle Elum, about 90 miles east of Seattle. After catching a lactating female who recently birthed pups, officials secured a radio transmitter to it so they could find out how many more are in the pack. DNA results will help wildlife managers determine if the pack came from the other two packs in eastern Washington or the resident Lookout Pack to the north.

The new wolves are another hopeful sign of wildlife recovery in Washington, particularly after poaching may have already wiped out the Lookout Pack, first discovered in 2008.

"Wolves bring life back into the Cascades," said Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest, the non-profit group that first spotted the new pack on remote cameras. "They can help restore balance to ecosystems through their role as top dog of the wilderness.”

Not everyone shares that enthusiasm, though. As The Seattle Times reports, ranchers are concerned about the impact of wolves on their cattle. But more wolves in western Washington might mean their protection under the Endangered Species Act would one day be lifted. As Jack Field of the Washington Cattleman's Association told the Times: "The question now is, does the state have ability to manage these wolves? I guess we'll see." The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently writing a wolf management plan.

After a century of predator persecution, the new neighbors -- first grizzlies, then wolves -- are putting the wild back in Washington.

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