Interagency teams continue search for North Cascades Grizzlies

WENATCHEE-Teams of wildlife biologists have begun the second year of at least a three-year effort to determine the status of grizzly bears in the North Cascades.

U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Transportation Institute biologists are planning the second year of this study using remote-controlled cameras and hair snares spread across about 9,500 square miles in North Central Washington.

Some teams will be working this summer in the Upper Cascade River watershed where a hiker photographed an animal last October that an interagency panel of grizzly bear experts confirmed was a grizzly bear. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week it was the first confirmed grizzly bear sighting in the North Cascades since 1996.

“In the wake of these photographs, this analysis is more significant because information from our efforts will be used to evaluate options for addressing grizzly recovery in the North Cascades,” said Lead Project Biologist Bill Gaines, Ph.D. “Knowing the location of a confirmed sighting helps focus our efforts.”

During the first year of the study, biologists deployed 191 hair snares and 47 remote-controlled cameras in secluded parts of the North Cascades. The first year of the effort covered about nine percent of the 9,500 square-mile study area.

Scientists sent about 900 bear hair samples to a genetics lab for analysis and identified 218 individual black bears, but no grizzly bears. They also reviewed more than 6,500 digital photos from remote-controlled cameras they erected at some hair snare sites. Images showed about 130 different black bears of different sizes and color, but none were determined to be grizzly bears.

Gaines said he was hopeful a grizzly bear might be detected in the first year, but results did not surprise him because the study area is so large and the effort is only in its first year. He said if similar efforts are carried out in 2011 and 2012, about 25 to 30 percent of the study area could be sampled with efforts focused in the best habitat.

The study area is one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land in the lower 48 states, stretching from the Canadian border south to Interstate 90. It encompasses the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park. Much of it lies in rugged, remote country such as the Pasayten, Alpine Lakes and Glacier Peak Wilderness Areas.

Scientists with the North Cascades Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team selected the sites based upon knowledge of quality grizzly habitat, accessibility to remote sites and frequency of reputable sightings.

The current status and distribution of grizzly bears in the North Cascades has not been investigated for many years and is one of the objectives of the study.

Another interagency team of scientists completed the last search for North Cascades grizzlies in 2000 when they completed a study using hair snares on both sides of the border and documented one Canadian grizzly. Their study only covered a small portion of the recovery area.

North Cascades ecosystem grizzlies have been protected in both countries for decades, but the population has not recovered from extremely low numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates adjacent British Columbian populations to be less than 25 to 30 grizzlies.