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Rare grizzly confirmed in North Cascades

By Tim Johnson
Cascadia Weekly

This is the first report vertified by photographic evidence of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades ecosystem since 1996, according to Joe Scott, a conservation director for Conservation Northwest in Bellingham.

Editors Note, 2014: Continued research in the area of the 2010 bear photos taken by a hiker in the North Cascades, including photo evidence of an usually large black bear in the immediate vicinity and no hair, scat, tracks or sign of grizzly bears found in the area, have led some bear experts to believe the animal in the photos was actually a black bear.

For the first time in nearly half a century, game experts confirm a grizzly bear lives in the North Cascades. A hiker last fall snapped several pictures of a bear while walking near the Upper Cascade River watershed.

A team of wildlife experts analyzed the photo and conformed it is of a grizzly bear. This is the first report vertified by photographic evidence of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades ecosystem since 1996, according to Joe Scott, a conservation director for Conservation Northwest in Bellingham. Although state and federal agencies have been working to recover the North Cascades’ small native grizzly population for over 20 years and receive multiple reports of possible grizzly bears each year, most turn out to be black bears.

Grizzly bears in the North Cascades are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act and by State law. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) believes there are fewer than 20 grizzlies in the U. S. portion of the North Cascades, with perhaps that many more in the adjoining Canadian portion of the ecosystem.

“This is a significant event in the world of grizzly bear recovery,” said Becki Heath, Chair of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery sub-committee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). “Although grizzly bears once occupied the North Cascades, the current population appears to be at very low levels.  We rarely have evidence of their presence in the ecosystem.”

Joe Sebille was hiking in October of 2010 when he encountered the bear feeding on a steep slope in the upper Cascade River watershed. He watched the animal for a while, then snapped some pictures and left the area. Sebille knew the bear didn’t look like the black bears he had seen but didn’t realize he had seen a grizzly bear or that the sighting was unusual until he began discussing the encounter with friends and sharing his photographs.

In May 2011, Sebille contacted the North Cascades National Park to share his story and the photographs. NPS bear biologist Anne Braaten realized their significance and contacted Sebille for more information. Braaten, who is part of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Subcommittee of the Inter-Agency Grizzly Bear Committee, shared Sebille’s account and photographs with her peers in the group, who also believed the bear to be a grizzly.  That group passed the information on to Dr. Chris Servheen, the USFWS Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, who sent the photo to a group of grizzly bear experts to review. That group unanimously confirmed the animal in the photo as a grizzly bear.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest biologist Bill Gaines, who is leading a grizzly bear hair-snare study currently underway in the North Cascades said the area where the bear was sighted had already been identified as great bear habitat and a good area to place hair-snare gear.

“When we started the study we convened a group of bear biologists and looked at the maps for combinations of terrain, forage and other things that would appeal to grizzly bears” Gaines said. “The area where this bear was sighted is on our list but we have limited resources.  We just haven’t gotten there yet.”

Gaines said he hopes to get hair-snare gear in to the area this field season—probably in late summer. Hair-snare studies utilize barbed wire corrals with bear-attractive scents in the center. When the bear enters the corral it leaves hairs on the surrounding fence. DNA extracted from the material can provide scientists with important information about the bear, including species, sex, and some things about parentage. The ability to identify individual bears through DNA samples is an important tool in determining how many grizzly bears are in the North Cascades, how they are related and whether they are reproducing.

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