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Forget Sasquatch: The elusive Cascade Grizzly

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By Nathan Rice
Crosscut

Biologists have been stalking grizzlies in the Cascades for years... A recently verified photograph has reinvigorated the research team, but the fight for funding to protect the white whale of the Cascades goes on.

Scott Fitkin started his career chasing ghost bears. As a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the late '80s, he stalked grizzly bear sightings in the Cascade Mountains. Over two decades, he verified a few tracks but never glimpsed a grizzly or even a photograph of one.

Until this June. That's when pictures taken by a hiker in October 2010 in North Cascades National Park, 100 miles northeast of Seattle, were circulated among biologists. They showed a silhouetted bear with the distinctive grizzly traits — small ears, dished facial profile, a hump on its back. "It had a grizzly gestalt to it," Fitkin says. A panel of experts confirmed the sighting — the first in the Cascades in 15 years and the only known photos of a living grizzly in the range in perhaps half a century. It reinforced Fitkin's longtime belief: that a few grizzlies still survive in the North Cascades.

Now Fitkin is back where he started two decades ago, searching for grizzlies, this time in the second summer of the Cascades' most ambitious bear survey yet. Fifteen miles deep in the Pasayten Wilderness in the northeastern corner of the range, he and five colleagues are heading into new territory to set up hair-snag stations. Their aim is to pluck fur from a grizzly somewhere in 9,600 square miles of rugged mountains. DNA from the hair could confirm the presence of grizzlies and indicate how isolated they are from other populations. Last year, 700 hair samples revealed only black bears. But this year, hope runs high...

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