The forgotten North Cascades grizzly bear

  • Fisher Creek Basin in North Cascades National Park, where the last known grizzly bear killed in the Cascades was shot in 1967.

    Nathan Rice
  • This photo, taken in October 2010, is the first confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades in 15 years.

    Joe Sebille
  • Grizzly sightings are fairly common in Yellowstone, where this bear was spotted.

    Robert Bunch
  • Biologists Bill Gaines and Scott Fitkin look for hair snag locations in an old log cabin 15 miles deep in the Pasayten Wilderness.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines and technician Aja Woodrow hike deeper into the Pasayten Wilderness to set up hair snag corrals.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service technician Aja Woodrow pours the cattle blood and salmon carcass lure to attract carnivores to the hair snag corral. The lure is liquefied so it doesn't become a food source.

    Nathan Rice
 

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.

As the August dusk falls, the team crowds into an old log cabin to plan for the next day. "Just think like a grizzly," says Fitkin to Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines, with whom he has worked for 20 years. In the middle of the room, Gaines pores over maps under a headlamp, looking for meadows -- bear habitat -- amid snaking contour lines. Technician Aja Woodrow traces a route with his finger to a promising location, but runs into white space. "We're going off the map," he says.

Gaines, who leads the fieldwork for Cascades grizzly recovery, smiles. "I like going off the map."

"I feel good today," Gaines says early the next morning. "Perky. A perky 50 years old." It's Gaines' birthday, and he starts down the trail with eager, long-legged strides. Early sunlight gilds the tops of pines.

Gaines was only 27 when he started mapping grizzly bear habitat across the Cascades. In 1991, his work led to the designation of the North Cascades as the second-largest federal grizzly bear recovery area in the country; the other five are clustered in the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a grizzly bear recovery plan for the Cascades, hoping to one day restore a viable population of 200 to 400 bears. Since then, however, not much has happened, even as the population teeters on the edge of oblivion.

Based on sightings and tracks over the years, biologists estimate that fewer than 20 grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades -- the last U.S. outpost of West Coast grizzlies that once roamed from Canada to Mexico. Another 25 or fewer survive just north of the border in the Canadian Cascades, isolated from the rest of Canada's 25,000-some grizzlies. The Cascades population is still reeling from the orchestrated massacre of the trapping days; between 1827 and 1859, 3,788 grizzly bear hides were shipped out of Northwest trading posts, according to Hudson's Bay Company records. By 1860, an estimated 350 grizzly bears survived in the Cascades, down from an historical population of around 1,000. Between 1900 and 1967, people killed another 66 bears, as recounted in David Knibb's book, Grizzly Wars.

Despite the creation of North Cascades National Park in 1968, and the federal protection of all grizzlies in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, they never made a comeback here. The ESA listing was supposed to trigger efforts to restore Ursus arctos horribilis in the Cascades, but 35 years later there's little to show for it. State and federal land managers in the area have protected grizzly habitat, secured garbage cans in campgrounds and educated the public. But no progress has been made on what most biologists say is essential for recovery: bringing bears into the Cascades from healthier populations.

Just getting the federal government to complete the necessary paperwork has been frustrating for advocates. In 1990, environmentalists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade the bear's status in the Cascades from "threatened" to the more urgent "endangered" in order to spur recovery action. The agency gave a familiar response: The Cascades grizzly deserves to be listed as endangered, but a lack of resources -- and a plethora of more endangered species -- precludes it. Seven years later, the agency finally finished a Cascades grizzly recovery plan that called for starting the process within five years. But years dragged by; activists sued again in 2004 to jumpstart recovery, and the case was dismissed.

Despite the setbacks, bear backers haven't given up. They're still pushing Fish and Wildlife to start the document that would pave the way to recovery -- an environmental impact statement (EIS) examining how more grizzly bears would affect the Cascades ecosystem and communities. To do so, the agency needs $1.2 million -- not much in a world of trillion-dollar debt, but a fortune when it comes to grizzly bear recovery. Last year, state and federal agencies spent some $10.7 million on grizzlies in the Lower 48 on everything from law enforcement and human-bear conflicts to monitoring and recovery. The vast majority of that was spent in the Rockies, where populations have grown to over 1,500 grizzlies. Fish and Wildlife's grizzly bear recovery office, which coordinates the collaborative effort, has a 2011 budget of just $1.5 million. The bulk -- $900,000 -- is allocated for management of Yellowstone's rebounding population. The Cascades received $20,000.

This disparity in recovery funding has long irked local advocates. Some blame what they call "Rocky Mountain syndrome" -- a perceived institutional bias that keeps money where there are already more programs and more bears (as well as other wildlife) on the ground, even as Cascades grizzlies face extirpation.

"The Cascades grizzly bear has always been the red-headed stepchild of the grizzly bear recovery program," says Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest, the leading local advocacy group for grizzly recovery. "It generally gets the hand-me-downs, leftovers and pocket change."

The biologists who've spent their careers working for the Cascades grizzly are also frustrated, though they speak more diplomatically.

"As a biologist, I have pushed the issue that we're losing options on our population in the Cascades pretty rapidly," says Gaines. "If we truly make decisions about recovery in terms of biological need, the Cascades come up pretty darn high."

M/M Warren Anderson
M/M Warren Anderson Subscriber
Nov 14, 2011 03:23 PM
If North Cascades National Park is "100 Miles north west of Seattle" then it has migrated to Vancouver Island or out into the Pacific Ocean. Whenever I read any modern author giving compass directions he is almost always wrong. Does no one in the modern world know what the cardinal directions are? Do no modern publications have proofreaders?
Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice Subscriber
Nov 14, 2011 03:35 PM
Thanks for catching that. We'll correct it to northeast.
BLM Idaho State Office
BLM Idaho State Office Subscriber
Nov 16, 2011 12:34 PM
If it only cost 1.2 million to write the EIS than why not haave the NGO groups that are spending money on Lawsuits payt for it. Minning companies almost always write their own (or have them 3rd party contractors) write tehm. The EIS would still need to be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service but it might be faster way to get it done
Mike Lazzari
Mike Lazzari Subscriber
Nov 19, 2011 11:58 AM
The photo of the so-called grizzly is in doubt. At least by me. The following photo was taken in the same place within two days of the other photo. It is clearly a black bear with a hump.
<http://lh5.ggpht.com/[…]/DSC_8341-1.JPG?imgmax=800>
Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice Subscriber
Nov 19, 2011 12:30 PM
Hi Mike. Thanks for the comment. It is interesting that there was a black bear photographed in the same area. Bear experts reviewed the new photos and determined that they could not discredit the first photos, so it remains a Class 1 confirmed grizzly bear sighting.
Mike Lazzari
Mike Lazzari Subscriber
Nov 19, 2011 12:53 PM
Yes, but it casts doubt on the bear in the original Sebille photo. I believe the original description of the bear was redish-brown and this bear is clearly black. But we know that light angle can deceive. The Sebille photos are just a silhouette.
George Winters
George Winters Subscriber
Nov 19, 2011 09:58 PM
The article seems to be suggesting two things which are not clearly stated: 1. More research would some how improve the chance for the grizzly bear to come in to the North Cascades. 2. More money would somehow allow for introducing non-resident bears.

On the first point it is not clear that more study would actually help the bears. The area is already Wilderness, National Park, and National Recreation area, so what are the management changes that would help the bears return? The Forest Service already has a plan to prevent loss of habitat, there is no hunting grizzly bears, and there is no process going on that is stopping the bears from migrating in to the area. It is very possible that there never was a significant population of grizzly bears in the North Cascades, at least not on the west side of the range. If the desire is to have salmon eating bears, then dams and natural river barriers mean that, on the west side, the salmon area is in the towns and lowlands, not really in the North Cascades. The problems with salmon recovery are already being studied.

On the second point, bringing in non resident bears may very well be about as logical as the way that mountain goats were introduced in to the Olympic mountains, creating a totally non-natural population. It seems like a better focus of study would be to try to figure out if grizzly bears were ever a significant resident in the remaining high country. Black bears are doing quite well in the area. Maybe the only reason grizzly bears are not pushing themselves in to this area is because they have better conditions elsewhere. Or, maybe they actually need more management help somewhere else that is a better core area for them.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Nov 21, 2011 07:19 PM
Hi Nate. Interesting piece, and nice synthesis of the political baggage.

I was surprised not to read about researchers surveying for rub trees in order to determine grizzly occurrence / use of the area, and to target their hair snare deployment. Is this not something done in the NOCA area? Seems to me that’d be a far more efficient use of (extremely limited) money as compared to putting out cameras and bait stations.

At any rate, nice article.

Jesse
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Nov 22, 2011 11:10 AM
Interesting. So I guess my question, then, is why the fuss with all the other techniques? If you’ve identified rub trees, you will instantly have at least a decent idea of whether or not bears are using the ecosystem based on the condition of hair left behind. And because rub trees are used over and over by multiple bears, you can then simply clear identified trees of old hair and collect new hair as they are deposited to get an estimation of use (as well as genetic material for your questions in that regard). This is precisely what folks in MT and Alberta are doing now.

I’m confused as to why you seem to be over complicating the field techniques by deploying cameras, setting up these large enclosures for bears to enter, or even worrying about stratifying your sampling effort by habitat type. Be like the bears and simply walk the trails looking for rubs… It seems to me this would save lots of time, effort, and money that could then allocated elsewhere in your effort. Or do you have other reasons for this other fuss?

Thoughts?
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 11:16 AM
Hi Jesse and other commenters -- Joe and Mitch of conservation NW will repost their comments. I had to delete them b/c Joe's looked like Mitch's, and Mitch's like Joe's, because of an issue with our comment system. We are working to remedy so each commenter's comments appear as his own. Best, Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Joe Scott
Joe Scott Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 11:17 AM
Hi George, good points. If I may, the research may shed light on the status of the Cascades grizzly bear population, particularly whether there are breeding females and how they’re related to bears in British Columbia. That information may in turn tell us something about connectivity to BC populations.

Understanding their demography might also inform recovery actions, so for example whether augmenting the population with bears from other systems is an appropriate strategy. We believe it is not only appropriate but necessary for recovery.

You are also correct that the vast majority of their habitat, the North Cascades Grizzly bear recovery zone is already protected in a network of parks, wilderness and other designations. The habitat is extensive (especially when measured with that in Manning Park in British Columbia) and very high quality. But grizzly bears are notoriously slow to reproduce and disperse. Females, the drivers of population growth, adopt home ranges that mostly overlap that of their mothers. And we know virtually nothing about the status of grizzly bears on the BC side of the Cascades except that there are very few animals.

So the nearest grizzly bear populations to the trans-boundary Cascades system are in the southwest BC Coast Range in the Squamish district and in the Stein and Nahatlatch River valleys west of the Fraser River and south of Lillooet BC, about 100 crow miles away. But extensive research has shown that the Stein population consists of only about 27 bears. In fact all of the southern BC populations are threatened and in need of recovery actions themselves. And every year bears from those populations are lost to poaching and mistaken identity by black bear hunters.

So natural recolonization for the Cascades will be slow and depend on protecting the southern BC bears and maintaining habitat connections. As to your point about historic grizzly bear presence, Hudson’s Bay records indicate that there were likely several thousand grizzly bears in the region. Much of the background info about Cascades bears and the recovery zone and process can be found in the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s recovery plan from 1997 and at www.bearinfo.org. "



Mitch Friedman
Mitch Friedman Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 11:46 AM
Great discussion. To Jesse's question, yes, the hair snag (and remote camera) efforts are heavily informed by habitat characteristics, scratch trees, etc. To Mike's, both the Sebille photo and the batch of images from the other photographer have undergone extensive expert review and a variety of opinions exist, ranging from 2 different griz to 2 different black bear to even hybrids. But for now the Sebille sightings still counts.

The most important facts are these: The North Cascades once supported a sizable grizzly bear population; the quantity and quality of habitat indicate that it still can; the present population is too small to recovery itself and needs help. I personally wish we could save time and money by undertaking augmentation without a NEPA process, but USFWS is firmly set otherwise. Therefore we must find the funds (private and public) quickly to get this thing moving forward.

Almost 20 years ago, at a USFWS public hearing in Seattle on the NC chapter of the Grizzly Bear Recoveyr Plan, Chris Servheen said to me, "Mitch, you and I both know that in 20 years this population will be recovered." If Chris could have backed his words with action, he might have been right. for better or worse, the ball is still in his court.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Nov 22, 2011 11:59 AM
I re-posted mine as well to maintain the continuity of the discussion:

Interesting. So I guess my question, then, is why the fuss with all the other techniques? If you’ve identified rub trees, you will instantly have at least a decent idea of whether or not bears are using the ecosystem based on the condition of hair left behind. And because rub trees are used over and over by multiple bears, you can then simply clear identified trees of old hair and collect new hair as they are deposited to get an estimation of use (as well as genetic material for your questions in that regard). This is precisely what folks in MT and Alberta are doing now.

I’m confused as to why you seem to be over complicating the field techniques by deploying cameras, setting up these large enclosures for bears to enter, or even worrying about stratifying your sampling effort by habitat type. Be like the bears and simply walk the trails looking for rubs… It seems to me this would save lots of time, effort, and money that could then allocated elsewhere in your effort. Or do you have other reasons for this other fuss?

Thoughts?
Mitch Friedman
Mitch Friedman Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 12:13 PM
Basic needle in haystack, Jesse. The North Cascades ecosystem is as big as the northern continental divide, just as much roadless area, far more trailless drainages, far fewer bears. It's a matter of trying everything, I think.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Nov 22, 2011 10:25 PM
Right. I do understand that. And I’m not trying to be negative or critical; I’m just still not quite following. Regardless of any logistical constraints your study area comes with, if you guys are already finding rub trees – trees that bears visit with some regularity and consistently and deposit their own hair for you – why bother with the other techniques? I’m not sure the needle in the haystack analogy quite fits. Sure, it’s a big area with few bears, but the bears are telling you exactly where to find their DNA by rubbing it all over specific trees, some of which you’ve already found. It seems like your goal at this stage is simply to document some kind of use or occurrence. Right? I understand the logic behind trying more than one option, but if demonstrating occurrence is in fact your current goal I’m having a hard time understanding why you’d go beyond simply using those rub trees you‘ve already found (or maybe searching for additional ones) to achieve that goal.
It sort of seems like the methods are driving this project, rather than appropriately matching methods to your research/monitoring objectives… What am I missing?
Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice Subscriber
Nov 23, 2011 10:59 AM
Hi Jesse,

Thanks for reading and prompting the discussion. I'm not familiar with the rub tree survey methods you reference and the biologists with the Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project could better address your questions. What I can say is that the grizzly bear survey is part of a collaboration with the CCCP that is targeting multiple species to look at how carnivores use the Cascades landscape and also how populations are affected by the three highways that cut through the Cascades. I covered this part of the effort in the related multimedia (http://www.hcn.org/[…]/how-to-snag-a-grizzly) Check out www.cascadesconnectivity.org for more info on their methods or to follow up with them.

Cheers,

Nathan
M/M Warren Anderson
M/M Warren Anderson Subscriber
Nov 23, 2011 11:05 AM
One would think that the methods used to census bears would also detect the sasquatch - if it existed. Maybe it's a vegetarian and it isn't attracted by the blood and fish baits :)
Aja Woodrow
Aja Woodrow
Dec 27, 2011 05:30 PM
Hi Jesse,
Whenever we come across rub trees we collect hair samples. I usually find 1-2 of these incidental samples per year. The corral method provides a high probability for gathering genetic samples on the first revisit to a site.