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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

July 1, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Grizzly bear sighting confirmed in the North Cascades last fall

The first verified grizzly bear sighting has been identified in a photograph taken last October in Washington’s North Cascades Mountains, according to a North Cascades National Park Services news release.

This is the first Class 1 report of a grizzly bear in the North Cascades ecosystem since 1996. Class 1 reports are considered verified sightings of a species that include physical evidence such as tracks or a photograph of the animal with a geographically-verifiable background.

Although State and Federal agencies have been working to recover the North Cascades’ small native grizzly population for over twenty years and receive multiple reports of possible grizzly bears each year, most turn out to be black bears.

Photographs taken by a hiker who encountered the animal are the first known confirmed photos of a living North Cascades grizzly bear in perhaps a half-century.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) estimates that there are fewer than 20 grizzly bears in the Cascades. But with no officially verified sightings in more than a decade, some biologists have expressed concern that the Cascades grizzly bears have all but vanished.

At nearly 10,000 square miles, the North Cascades Ecosystem is the second largest of six official grizzly bear recovery zones designated by the federal government and the only one outside of the Rocky Mountains.

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 in a news release 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.”

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.”

To learn more about grizzly bears, including how to tell grizzly bear and black bears apart, the biology and behavior of grizzly bears, history of grizzly bears in North America, tips on bear safety and information on the management and recovery of grizzly bear populations, visit the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee website or the Bear Information website.

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