Last October, Joe Sebille snapped a few pictures of a large bear in the North Cascades. Sebille was hiking in the Upper Cascade River watershed, where black bears are common, so he didn't think much of it. He showed his photos around to friends. Eventually they landed in the hands of a bear biologist at the National Parks Service, which in July confirmed that this was something much bigger than another black bear — the first photo identification of a grizzly bear in Washington's Cascade Range in 50 years.
“It could be one of the last sightings of the Cascades grizzlies, or one of the first of a new generation,” says David Graves, a staffer at the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates for maintenance and improvements at the parks. He hopes it’s the latter.
The confirmation of the grizzly sighting was soon followed by more big news: the first confirmed wolf sighting in the Cascades since gray wolves were eradicated from Washington some 60 years ago. A new pack, dubbed the Teanaway pack, had been identified roaming near Cle Elum.
Both wolves and grizzly bears are incredibly rare in the Cascades. Both are protected in Western Washington under the federal Endangered Species Act, and throughout Washington under state law. Their arrival has inspired celebration among conservationists, and while their presence will mean little change for hikers, it provides a lens for looking at long-awaited recovery plans for Washington's wilderness.
The photograph of a formerly mythic North Cascades grizzly provides support for backup recovery plans that were initiated about 30 years ago to protect this long hypothesized but rarely seen species. Graves hopes this evidence will encourage more funding for grizzly recovery projects, which were previously based on speculation. “We need to not manage for the minimum,” says Joe Scott, international programs director at the advocacy group Conservation Northwest. “We need to allow them to get to ecologically effective numbers.”
In 1997, a coalition of federal agencies that oversee various parts of the North Cascades established the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area, to be managed according to a mutually agreed set of priorities in order to nurture good bear habitat. At 9,565 square miles,it is one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land remaining in the lower 48 states. With bear habitat also extending north into the Canadian Cascades, this is a rare territory, ideal for animal recovery.
Grizzly bears pose little danger to hikers in the Cascades, thanks to the sheer unlikelihood of running into one; only 10 to 20 are estimated to inhabit the North Cascades. By contrast, Montana's Glacier National Park, one of the most heavily hiked parks in the United States, has about 750 grizzlies. Don't expect a wildlife safari the next time you hit Washington's back country.
Still, “hikers in the North Cascades should already be prepared to encounter bears,” says Conservation Northwest's Joe Scott. There and elsewhere, they should take precautions to avoid unhappy encounters with the 25,000 black bears that live in Washington. The rules vary slightly for encounters with grizzlies and black bears, but overall they are similar: Make noise and avoid surprise encounters around streams and blind corners. Avoid walking into the wind, where bears cannot smell you. Remember that bears will defend their space, their young, and their food sources. Avoid hiking with dogs in back country, as they can aggravate bears and draw them to you. Carry bear spray, the most effective defense in a bear encounter.
The recovery of gray wolves is a more conspicuous and contested issue than the phantom-like image of a grizzly silhouetted on a hillside. Several wolf packs have made news around Washington in recent months. Conservation Northwest volunteers discovered the Cascade Teanaway pack in early July. Later that month, biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) caught members of a new pack, the state's fifth, in Northeastern Washington, where wolves are better established. In what amounts to a conservation PR rep's dream, the packs’ arrival jibed almost perfectly with the completion of DFW's Wolf Management Plan, in the works since 2007; the state Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to review it and decide its fate by December. The pack's arrival catalyzed public response; Graves says the draft plan drew an impressive 65,000 comments from around the state.
Hikers worried about wolves should rest assured that they, like most wild animals, avoid humans. “In 100 years, there have only been two confirmed kills by wolves in North America,” says Graves. “These have been in very remote places.” The worst conflict a hiker can expect with wolves is to have a pet dog attacked, possibly killed. “Wolves treat dogs as competitors and will kill them on sight,” says DFW's Doug Zimmer. But that's the extreme. More likely, the presence of wolves in the Cascades will allow hikers the goose-bump-inspiring privilege of hearing a nighttime chorus of wolf song. Hearing animals at night, whether owl hoots, elk bugles, coyote chatter or wolf howls, is one of the most tangible sensations to the mystery of wilderness.
While their numbers are still low compared to those in neighboring Idaho and British Columbia, Washington’s wolves have rebounded faster than its bears. “Most wolves come back and recolonize very efficiently,” says Scott. “Grizzlies do not. They're very slow to come back once eliminated.” Together, however, their recovery is a conservation triumph. “All these pieces have come together to form one of the largest, most protected areas in the country. It's a very successful story that's been authored by hundreds of people, from governments, to conservation groups, to individuals, to private groups.”
The presence of wolves and grizzlies won’t have a great impact on how and where people hike. But their return of wolves and grizzlies marks a new chapter in the Cascades’ natural history, as the mountains slowly return to their ecologically complete past.
A version of this story appeared in Washington Trails magazine.