Grizzly Bears in Northeast Washington

Washington’s other grizzly bear population—in the Selkirk Mountains

Grizzly bears (ursus arctos) in northeast Washington’s Selkirk Mountains are one of two federally-designated grizzly populations found in our state. The other is in the North Cascades, where fewer than ten grizzly bears are believed to reside.

The Salmo-Priest Wilderness of northeast Washington is home to a small population of grizzly bears that roam between Idaho, Washington and B.C. Photo: USFS

In Washington, the range of the Selkirk grizzly population is the state’s very northeast corner, primarily on the Colville National Forest east of the Pend Oreille River and Highway 31, including the Salmo-Priest Wilderness area and wildlands to the south towards Sullivan Lake.

There are currently believed to be at least 50-60 grizzly bears in the Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone with numbers approximately equally divided between the Canadian and U.S. (northeast Washington and northern Idaho) portions of this transboundary ecosystem. Of these bears, roughly a dozen likely reside in Washington. Another 40 bears are estimated to roam the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone not far to the east in northwestern Montana and northeastern Idaho.

More information on grizzly bears in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones is available from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. The IGBC now manages these two recovery zones together through the Selkirk/Cabinet-Yaak Subcommittee.

A map of designated Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones, including the Selkirks, from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Learn more at: http://igbconline.org/

In addition to this small Selkirk grizzly population in the northeast corner of Washington, grizzly bears have also been documented in the “Wedge” area approximately 50 miles to the west between Highway 395 and the Columbia River near the Canadian border. These are likely transboundary bears who primarily reside in British Columbia, and a grizzly population has not been confirmed in this area or the nearby Kettle River Mountain Range.

Washington’s wild northeast corner

A mother grizzly bear and her cubs documented in 2012 by remote camera in the Wedge area of northern Stevens County on the Colville National Forest. These bears likely reside primarily in Canada. Photo: WDFW

The transboundary Selkirk ecosystem embraces 2,200 square miles in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and southern B.C. Approximately 1,040 square miles of this area is within British Columbia, Canada. The United States portion of the ecosystem includes the Colville, Kaniksu and Idaho Panhandle National Forests as well as public lands administered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho Department of Lands.

In 1999, the U,S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the Selkirk grizzly bear population status was warranted for listed as federally endangered but that such action was “precluded because of higher endangered species recovery priorities”.

Restoring connections

Managers have long assumed that the Selkirk population, while small, was more resilient because of their connection to existing healthy bear populations in Canada. Yet a 2005 study found that highways and the resulting development may be severing these connections.

Priest Lake with the Selkirk Mountains in the background. Photo: USFS

For the population to survive, wildlife managers hope to:

  • Augment the existing bear population with breeding age females, something that has been done successfully in the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone.
  • Better educate hunters about the differences between black bears (legal to hunt) and grizzly bears (a protected species) to reduce accidental killings. This is happening, including a new Bear ID test that’s required for hunters!
  • Educate people on how to store food properly in bear country.
  • Protect habitat and safe passage between populations of bears: to the east with the Cabinet/Yaak, northern Continental Divide, and Bitterroot ecosystems, to the north with Canada, and to the west between the Greater Rocky Mountains and the North Cascades.

Our friends at Defenders of Wildlife have also been working with local resident and tribes to reduce bear conflicts in the Selkirks. Learn more on their blog.

We also support efforts by our allies at Wildsight and the Ktunaxa First Nation to keep the Jumbo Valley wild to protect cultural and natural resources and a vital grizzly bear habitat area in southern British Columbia. Learn more at the Keep Jumbo Wild Campaign.

Two grizzly bears in northeast Washington’s Selkirk Mountains at a “hair snare”, a station set out to photograph them and capture genetic samples, in fall 2019. Photo credit: Kalispel Tribe of Indians Timber, Fish and Wildlife Biologist M. Wright.