For the first time in nearly half a century, experts have confirmed that a hiker has photographed a living grizzly bear in the North Cascades of Washington.
Joe Sebille was hiking high in the mountains of the North Cascades last fall when he came across exactly what he’d hoped to see: a bear.
The 26-year-old small-equipment mechanic and mountaineer had hiked the same crowded trail the weekend before and spied a few black bears in the distance. So he came back on a quiet weekday, Oct. 21, and saw another bear munching vegetation in a meadow.
He watched and photographed the creature as it gobbled up calories in preparation for winter.
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On Friday, federal biologists confirmed that Sebille had captured the first photograph of a live grizzly bear in the North Cascades in about half a century.
“We’ve had reports and observations and even pictures and videos of grizzlies on the other side of the border,” said Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly-bear recovery expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana. “But it’s been a long while since we’ve had solid evidence that the bears were still on the U.S. side of the Cascades.”
Grizzlies in the North Cascades are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but have been so rare in recent decades that many experts wondered if they were gone. Some biologists had taken to calling them “ghost bears” or “the walking dead.”
“The federal agencies 20 years ago determined that the habitat was exceptional and could support a stable population of bears,” said Mitch Friedman, with the environmental group Conservation Northwest. “But as the years passed without photos, I came to wonder if North Cascades grizzlies were like vampires and wouldn’t show up in photos.”
Every summer, federal officials field 30 to 40 reports of grizzly sightings in the North Cascades. About 15 percent of those are credible and fresh enough that teams of biologists head out to try and confirm that the bears weren’t common black bears. They’ve measured paw prints, taken hundreds of hair samples from barbed wire and employed scat-sniffing dogs to seek out grizzly poop.
But proof was always elusive. Tests of a hair sample from the Cascades five or six years ago showed it to be from a grizzly, but a second test proved inconclusive. The last officially recognized sighting was in 1996, when a biologist happened on a bear and a cub in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area and was able to make a cast of the adult’s track.
“Our records go back to the mid-1950s, and the last official photo we have is of a dead bear that was killed in 1968,” said Doug Zimmer, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman in Olympia, who monitors a hotline for grizzly-bear sightings.
Sebille, of Mount Vernon, saw the bear south of Highway 20 in the upper Cascade River drainage, on the western slope of the range.
Being that far from the border that late in the season “makes it highly unlikely that it was a transient bear from Canada,” Zimmer said.
“These are the most critically endangered grizzlies in North America,” Zimmer said. “We’re delighted to see that they’re still hanging in.”
Sebille last fall was just trying to squeeze a few more hikes in before first snow. He was hiking alone, but carrying a stick with bells on it as a warning, when he saw the bear about 75 yards away.
“He wasn’t really looking at me, but I jiggled my stick and he looked up, and when he did … Oh my God, intimidation city,” Sebille said. “Right off the bat, because of his color, I thought it might not be a black bear. I was just treating it as cautiously as possible.”
The bear went back to eating and ignored Sebille, who snapped five pictures with his older, point-and-shoot camera and went on his way.
Friends who later saw the pictures suggested this might have been an extraordinary encounter with a grizzly.
But it wasn’t until spring, when he stopped in Marblemount and got talking with a park ranger about animals, that it occurred to him to share his photos. He had them on his cellphone, and when the rangers looked, “suddenly everybody started hovering over my phone and saying, ‘You need to send this to us right away,’ ” Sebille said.
His photographs made their way around the Western U.S., eventually reaching Chris Servheen, who coordinates grizzly-bear recovery nationally, from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park. He sent blind copies of the pictures to a dozen or so bear experts and asked them to describe what they saw.
“We don’t give them any information until everyone has rendered their decision about what’s in the photo,” Kasworm said. “I think we got 10 or 11 responses and they all indicated that this was a grizzly.”
After that, the photos circulated among experts in Washington with the Park Service and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which already had identified the area where the bear was seen as a great place to locate a grizzly.
“We’ve had issues in the past where we were concerned about people who had doctored photos, but we’re not seeing any indication of that with this case or this individual,” Kasworm said. “We think this is exactly what it looks like it is.”
Federal officials suspect there may be about 20 grizzlies residing in the 10,000-square-mile area around North Cascades National Park. It is one of six recovery areas, including Glacier and Yellowstone, where the government is trying to restore bear populations decimated by hunters and trappers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There are also several dozen grizzlies in the Selkirk Mountains north of Spokane, but the North Cascades population is more remote and isolated. Experts have said for years that the best way to ensure the grizzlies survive in the North Cascades is to augment the population by introducing new bears.
But that prospect is expensive and controversial and hasn’t gotten much traction.
“We’ve talked about this for 20 years, and over time the sightings have gotten fewer and fewer to the point where I worried the bears had blinked out altogether on our watch,” Friedman said.
“So I’m incredibly relieved. But this is a clarion call on the federal government to fulfill its obligation to recover the species.”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org