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First confirmed grizzly sighting in 15 years in North Cascades National Park

By Ann McCreary
Methow Valley News

“Grizzly bears are considered an umbrella species, since they are wilderness-loving animals with large home ranges and need lots of roadless wild areas to thrive. A number of other animals as well need those kinds of security,” Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest said.

A bear photographed by a hiker last October in North Cascades National Park has been confirmed to be a grizzly, the first verified sighting in the Cascades in 15 years.

The bear was photographed in the Cascade River watershed and the pictures, taken by hiker Joe Sebille of Mount Vernon, show the animal on a hillside, silhouetted against the sky.

“The profile is clearly a grizzly, you can see the hump,” said Joe Scott, director of international conservation for Conservation Northwest, which promotes grizzly recovery. “This is the first confirmed sighting since 1997,” said Scott. “We welcome this confirmation that grizzly bears still roam the North Cascades.”

Sebille, in an interview this week, said he was taking one last hike before the winter came, and headed up a trail near Marblemount. He had hiked about five miles up the trail, reaching an elevation of about 6,500 feet near Cascade Pass.

“I came around a corner and there he was. I wasn’t very bear savvy, so I didn’t know I was looking at a grizzly.”

The bear didn’t see him immediately. Seville, who described himself as a “head-over-heels” mountaineer who often hikes solo, carries a long bamboo pole with a bell on it, specifically to warn bears of his presence.

“I gave it a little shake and he looked right at me and I thought, ‘Why did I do that?’” Sebille said. “It was a prolonged gaze. He was definitely surveying the situation.”

To Sebille’s relief, the bear went back to eating vegetation on the hillside, and Sebille stayed in the area, taking several photos from a distance of about 75 yards with a point-and-shoot camera.

“I made eye contact with him a few times, which I hear isn’t a good idea,” Sebille said. “He went about doing his thing and let me get a lot of shots.”

Sebille showed the pictures to friends and family during the following months, and some people told him they thought it looked like a grizzly bear. But it wasn’t until May, when he was hiking again near Marblemount and stopped into a ranger station to get some maps, that he shared the photos with park officials. He had saved them to his cell phone and asked the rangers there to look at them. “Within minutes everyone in the station was hanging over me looking at my phone.”

The photos were eventually forwarded to Chris Servheen in Missoula, Mont., USFWS coordinator of grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states. Servheen convened a panel of grizzly experts that unanimously agreed the bear was a grizzly.

While confirmation that grizzlies still range the North Cascades is welcome news, “it doesn’t change the fact that their foothold in these mountains is… tenuous,” said Scott of Conservation Northwest. “The fact remains, it’s a very small population of bears and they need help recovering.”

Grizzly bears are protected as a threatened species in the North Cascades and have been recommended for listing as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but were “precluded” by other priorities, Scott said.

“At a liberal estimate, there are fewer than 20 grizzly bears in the North Cascades,” Scott said.

An interagency grizzly bear committee in 2001 established recovery in the North Cascades as its second priority and recommended an Environmental Impact Statement for a recovery plan, but Scott said that has not been accomplished.

“Grizzly bears are considered an umbrella species, since they are wilderness-loving animals with large home ranges and need lots of roadless wild areas to thrive. A number of other animals as well need those kinds of security,” Scott said.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service began a review of the status of grizzlies in the North Cascades in 2007. “While study of this very rugged and remote habitat indicates that this ecosystem is capable of supporting a self-sustaining population of grizzlies, only a ‘remnant’ population remains, incapable of enduring without active recovery efforts. The population is estimated to be fewer than 20 animals within the 9,500-square-mile North Cascades recovery zone,” according to information from the agency.

The agency notes that low population numbers are demonstrated by “continuing lack of credible sightings and little success identifying animals through hair snagging and genetic analysis.”

Scott said Conservation Northwest advocates “pro-active strategies to boost the population,” which he said was promoted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in a North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Strategy 15 years ago. He said he hoped this recent confirmed sighting would prompt renewed action toward recovery in the North Cascades.

Sebille said because he often hikes alone in the Cascades, “I didn’t really want to see a bear.” But, he said, he’s happy that his photos have confirmed the presence of grizzlies.

“Overall the joy really comes from knowing that they’re out there and the Cascades are really healthy.”

Photo courtesy of Joe Sebille: This bear, photographed at about 6,500 feet in North Cascades National Park last October, has been confirmed as a grizzly. The animal saw the photographer but continued grazing.

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