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Best bets for Selkirks bruins

Posted by atheisen at Jun 13, 2011 02:50 PM |

The story of settlement of the West includes one of the nation’s most tragic near-disappearing acts: grizzly bears. But today, the bears are starting to come back, and wild places like the Columbia Highlands are vital to their return.

Best bets for Selkirks bruins

The Selkirk grizzly population is one of two remaining in WA, the other in the North Cascades. Protecting habitat and bear smart backcountry users are vital to their survival. Photo: WDFW/Dana Base

The story of settlement of the West includes one of the nation’s most tragic near-disappearing acts: grizzly bears.

Grizzly bears once roamed the West from northern Mexico to British Columbia. Researchers have estimated there were 50,000-100,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 states at the time Lewis and Clark explored the West. In the last century, those numbers plummeted to around 1000 bears.

Washington's once-burgeoning grizzly population now ekes by at less than 10% of the grizzlies in the lower 48. Wildlife agencies have established designated recovery areas in two ecosystems with the greatest likelihood of achieving sustainable grizzly population: The North Cascades and the Selkirks of the Columbia Highlands, which includes parts of northeast Washington, north Idaho and southern BC.

Scientists currently estimate only about 20 grizzlies inhabit the North Cascades ecosystem, with very little evidence gathered in the last decade of their presence.

The bears fare a little better in the Selkirks; researchers estimate there to be 50 to 70 grizzly bears in this vital wildlife connection between the Rockies and the Cascades. This is their story.

In the Colville National Forest of eastern Washington, which encompasses most of the Washington portion of the Selkirk Recovery Area, wildlife biologist Michael Borysewicz of the Newport-Sullivan Lake Ranger Districts investigates all reported sightings.

Borysewicz has had one personal encounter with a grizzly in the Selkirks. In 2004, a work crew found a deer carcass with bite marks on it on an old road near the Sullivan Lake ranger station. Borysewicz drove out to investigate the carcass and, a few hundred feet from the it, saw a bear move off the carcass.

The radio-collared sub-adult male had been captured in Nelson, BC and released in southern BC, where it gradually moved down toward Sullivan Lake. Wildlife biologists were able to follow the bear’s ambling progress as it traveled down Sullivan Creek, crossed the Pend Oreille River, spent some time near Abercrombie-Hooknose, and finally crossed back up to BC.

Borysewicz says that grizzly bear sightings have been picking up in recent years, likely because the population itself is slowly increasing. Borysewicz recorded 11 reliable sightings in 2010.

Borysewicz attributes the growing numbers of bears to several factors, including road closures that have been put in place since the 1980s, greatly limiting potential poachers; campers learning to store food properly; and finally, changing public perception—bears are simply not as reviled as they used to be.

Last autumn a woman hiking on Crowell Ridge Trail to Watch Lake reported a grizzly bear foraging on huckleberries on one side of the ridge. Although many sightings are deemed unreliable because it is suspected the “grizzly” sighted was in fact a black bear, this hiker had a handy comparison to differentiate between the both: two black bears happened to be foraging on the opposite side of the ridgeline at the time.

Spotting a grizzly in the wild is a rare experience, but Borysewicz says that understanding the grizzly’s habits can help.

“Bears are eating machines when they’re not in the den,” says Borysewicz. “They have a good memory for where they’ve found food in the past and will run a trapline, so to speak,” visiting a circuit of time-tested feeding grounds.

Bears, particularly grizzlies, follow the vegetation as it emerges at progressively higher elevations over the course of the spring and summer.

In the springtime, grizzlies can often be found munching on newly emerged vegetation in wetland areas, such as old homestead meadows.

One of the best places to look for bears is in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness in the fall, when the berries have ripened. Ridgeline trails such as Crowell Ridge and portions of the Salmo Loop offer some of the best opportunities for spotting a bruin.

Of course, the best bet for seeing a grizzly is ensuring their survival.

Borysewicz suggests a two-part recipe for continued survival of the Selkirks grizzly population. The first step is habitat security. Borysewicz says that the Forest Service continues to make road closures more effective. The second step is food storage, which entails educating the public and updating traditional containers with animal-resistant units.

“It’s more a people-management issue than an animal-management issue,” says Borysewicz. “If we’ve educated people about food storage and gotten road closures to a manageable level, we’ve set the table for grizzlies to recover on their own.”

With luck, the tale of the grizzly can be one of the West’s best come-back stories. The work to protect the Columbia Highlands may be our best best for grizzly recovery in the Selkirks. You can help grizzly bears today by asking for wilderness protections with a quick letter.

[Be bear aware, no matter where] [Report all WA grizzly sightings to 1-800-WOLF-BEAR]

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