A bear photographed last October in Washington's North Cascades Mountains has been identified as a grizzly, the first confirmed sighting in the North Cascades since 1996.
This sighting is what's known as a Class 1 report, which is a verified sighting of a species that includes 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 more than 20 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.
Grizzly bears in the North Cascades are an endangered species and are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act and by state law. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 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."
Joe Sebille was hiking in October 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 bruin didn't look like the black bears he had seen but didn't realize he had seen a grizzly 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. National Park Service bear biologist Anne Braaten realized their significance and shared Sebille's account and photographs with the InterAgency Grizzly Bear Committee, who also believed the bear to be a grizzly.
That group passed the information on to 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.