A Griz In Washington’s Cascades?

First thing this morning a friend forwarded me a string of messages related to a possible grizzly sighting early last month in the rugged mountains of eastern Snohomish County, Wash.

A hiker wandering up the Blanca Lake trail — a real bastard that I nearly killed another friend on once (actually twice, going up and coming down) — snapped at least two shots of a large bear feeding in grass beside a lake with her iPhone.

The email forward included one of the two shots, which showed the animal’s belly and lower body is black, its topside a mix of dark browns. There’s an apparent hump behind the neck; its head is down in the grass.


The string also had the phone number for a U.S. Forest Service biologist who commented on the images to colleagues.

And, since I’m a sucker for distractions of any sort on deadline week of putting the magazine together — especially those only tangentially related to Northwest hunting or fishing — I immediately let my fingers do the walking.

After speaking with the bio for awhile, I emailed my friend a long, windy response, and that, dear reader, will have to serve as the nut of this blog post:

Goddamnit, Bell, I really DID NOT need this distraction on deadline for the next magazine …

So the guy I talked to, Don Gay, referenced in the email, received two pictures, one of which is attached while he says the other shows the bear’s head up.

He says the photos clarity aren’t really that good, but he sent both off to a slew of grizzly bear biologists.

He did not tell them where the images came from as a kind of control (if you tell them the shots came from Arkansas, are they likely to view them objectively?)

Two-thirds of the bios thought that the pic of the animal with its head down and the hump up could be a grizzly.

But it was 50-50 whether it really was griz in the head’s-up pic; he says in that one, the hump is less pronounced.

He says you need hits on at least two different characteristics to tell if it’s “probable” whether it’s griz or not — so things like ears, hump and face. A hump might just be shoulder blades on a black bear feeding with its head down and maybe front legs cocked at funny angles.

However, if you get a front paw print, yahtzee, it’s morphologically different than anything else [in the bear world] and it can serve as a confirmation that the beast leaving those claw marks on your chest is, indeed, a grizzly.

Back to the two shots: “Basically, it means it’s inconclusive,” Gay says.

[He notes that] there’s a study going on in the northern Cascades to see if there’s any genetic differentiation going on amongst populations of black bears, bobcats and martens between Washington’s major east-west highway passes, and as part of that, researchers have deployed dozens of baits and barbed wire. After the Blanca Lake sighting, one was put in the vicinity of (but not by) the trail to see if any hair samples might turn up. Samples are apparently collected every few weeks, but DNA results won’t be available until next spring.

In Washington’s North Cascades bear recovery area, there hasn’t been a confirmed grizzly since 1996, and it wasn’t that far from where an auditory report came from this summer [on the Pacific Crest Trail near Glacier Peak]. While the reporting party is adamant it was a bear, Gay wasn’t so sure — maybe a cougar, who knows.


I told the bio I was kind of surprised that, despite gobs of grizzly habitat from Mt. Baker to the east edge of the Pasayten to Snoqualmie Pass, there are no … grizzlies. What the hell’s up with that?

Basically, he says that low numbers beget low and then lower numbers.

The estimate that’s always thrown out there for how many grizzlies might be in the North Cascades is 20, but he corrected me on that.

“It’s between zero and 20 …  It’s real possible there are none on the U.S. side. We do know that in April, there was one on the Canadian side,” he said.

Where there are bears, there are sightings. He points to examples in Yellowstone and the Continental Divide of Montana, where bear numbers were once low, but have since grown. Along with all that growth have been A) more and more and more reports, and B) lots of dead grizzlies.

Back in Washington’s North Cascades, the last confirmed griz mortality in the recovery area occurred now 43 years ago. I wrote about that one in F&H, recall. It was shot by a hunter in the Thunder Creek area and reported on in the Skagit Valley Herald.

“If there is a remaining population, it’s clearly on its way to going extinct,” Gay says.

And that’s unlikely to change unless bears are reintroduced, he says.

With the hubbub about the wolves, I had to ask the next logical question. So …. the Feds planning on dropping any bears into the North Cascades?

“All that’s really happened is that the recovery area’s been established,” he says. There’s been no attempt by USFWS to figure out what to do next.

So there you go.

I think from now on, I’m going to send you off on wild goose chases when you’re busy.

Friends, you gotta love them.

But in retrospect, it was actually a very interesting start to the day, and it will be interesting to find out if any hair turns up in the bait station the researchers set up in the area (it should be noted that Gay says the station was NOT near the trail so as to avoid human-bear conflicts).

For more on the carnivore/transportation study going on in the Cascades, see KING 5’s story from late August.

That piece also mentions a “pretty good” report in 2008 from the Chiwawa River Valley, which is in the recovery area.

Elsewhere in Washington, a grizzly was mistaken for a black bear in Pend Oreille County in 2007 and shot. Two men were convicted and sentenced to five years probation, suspended from hunting for two years, sent back to remedial hunter’s ed, ordered to both pay $3,000 fines and together come up $14,857 payable to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Pics posted on Hunting-Washington earlier this year also purportedly from PoCo show a large bear with grizzly-like features.

And in 2003, a rancher spotted one near Chesaw. Hair samples collected from a fence came back “positive for a grizzly bear,” says Jeff Heinlein, a WDFW wildlife biologist. Chesaw is east of the recovery area. Heinlein says that after the sighting, there were no more reports of the bear.

“As compared to other samples in the lab’s data base, the bear was most closely related to bears from the Selkirks,” adds his boss, Scott Fitkin, district wildlife biologist for Okanogan County.

UPDATE 3:30 P.M., SEPT. 17, 2010: Here’s a link to a New York Times article yesterday on the search for grizzly bears in the North Cascades.

UPDATE 10:27 A.M., SEPT. 29, 2010: A few days ago Don Gay sent me an update from bear researchers who’ve placed two bait and barbed wire traps near Blanca. They collected some giant bear poop and a mess of hair, most of which was black but some was brown.

Trail cam shots captured at least two black bears hanging out, but one of them decided to play with the camera so that the next series of shots are messed up, though show a large eyeball and some brown fur.


The researchers think they will be able to determine what brand of bears came a’calling through the hair and scat samples, though those results won’t be back from the lab for months.

One Response to “A Griz In Washington’s Cascades?”

  1. Lance Delo Says:

    My name is Lance and I am the “reporting party” who reported the auditory encounter in Glacier Peak Wilderness to biologist Mr Don Gay (I still have his initial voicemail on my cell phone.)

    I am both disappointed and more than a little angry that Mr Gay – after talking to me at length – concluded I had had an encounter with a cougar and had (apparently to his mind) confused a cat call and the deeper, fundamentally different-sounding roar of a much larger animal.

    Simply put, that is nonsense. Balderdash. Rubbish.

    It is the height of presumptious arrogance for Mr Gay to have completely dismissed my experience, report, and veracity out of hand and concluded that my experience was something so dissimilar to what actually happened as to be laughable.

    I had been forewarned that modern wildlife biologists were an arrogant lot. I am now am a firm believer and doubt quite seriously I will ever again bother to talk to one again. What’s the point?

    For background, I am 54 years old, my dad had been a logger back in the day, I grew up on a farm, have been around animals from small rodents to 1000+ pound domesticated animals all my life, have been going into the woods since I was a small child, have had the privalage of having had three cougar encounters, and have been around no small number of bear.

    Further, like virtually everyone else with any interest in the backcountry and internet access, I have been exposed to no end of recordings and video of both bear and cougar making all sorts of vocalizations.

    Without going into details, the short version is that there is no way in hell that the animal I encountered was a cougar. I have never asserted exactly what it was, but it was absolutely with 100% certitude NOT a cat/couger/mountain lion. No way, no how, absolutely not. Period. Exclamation mark.

    If it was a bear, it also not a typical 100-200 pound Washington black bear.

    It was a large animal.

    I estimate that in order to make the volume and nature of sound that the animal did and have it reverberate (NOT echo – REVERBERATE) the way it did, that animal had to be at least (at an absolute bare rock-bottom minimum) 300+ pounds and I’d estimate that it was actually much (MUCH) larger than even that.

    I would refer Mr Gay to the cover of July 2nd 2011 Seattle Times for a picture of the type of “cougar” I had an encounter with. LIke I said, the height of presumptious arrogance.

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