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First female grizzly bear in Washington captured, collared, released near Metaline Falls

UPDATED: Thu., July 15, 2021

A female grizzly bear, left, was captured near Metaline Falls, Wash., and later released. She is the first to be captured and collared in the state of Washington.  (Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife)
A female grizzly bear, left, was captured near Metaline Falls, Wash., and later released. She is the first to be captured and collared in the state of Washington. (Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Federal wildlife managers on June 17 captured and collared a female grizzly bear, with three cubs, near Metaline Falls in northeast Washington, about 10 miles from the Canadian border.

This is the first female grizzly captured in Washington. Biologists believe she is a resident of the area and not from outside Washington.

“We have a population of grizzly bears, and it’s not just one that wanders in once in a while,” said Annemarie Prince, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife northeast district wildlife biologist.

The bear was released and will be tracked and monitored.

“Understanding how the bears are using the landscape will aid biologists in advancing recovery of the species” Hannah Anderson, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife diversity division manager, said in a news release.

The female bear was captured on U.S. Forest Service land in a rugged area of the Selkirk Mountains. Remote cameras took photos of the bear and cubs, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists trapped her.

“A group of bears – a mother and three cubs – were photographed on another occasion on a game camera in the same area three to four weeks prior to the capture,” Wayne Kasworm, grizzly bear biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said in the release. “The natal collar – the white ring around the neck – of one of the cubs leads us to believe this is the same family of bears.”

Four adult males were captured in 1985, 2016 and 2018. This was the first instance of a female capture, and in this case it was a female with young, according to a WDFW release. There are an estimated 70 to 80 grizzly bears living in the Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, with about half of those living in Canada.

Grizzlies in that area roam in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and southeastern British Columbia. The population in the Selkirk Recovery Zone is considered healthy and is growing at a rate of about 2.9% per year, according to the news release.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists captured the female bear, her young scattered. Biologists did a general health check on the mother and found her to be healthy.

“Grizzly bears once occupied much of the Cascade and Selkirk ranges, but their numbers were severely reduced as a result of persecution by early settlers and habitat degradation. Grizzly bear recovery started in 1981 and it took 40 years to confirm the first known female in Washington, that’s pretty remarkable,” said Rich Beausoleil, a bear and cougar biologist with WDFW, in a release. “Wayne and his team have been working hard and deserve a lot of credit, they’ve been great partners.”

Grizzly bears are an endangered species under federal law, which means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead agency for grizzly bears in Washington, with WDFW and tribal fish and wildlife agencies providing support.

When grizzly bears were listed in 1975, they had been reduced to less than 2% of their former range and the estimated population in the Lower 48 was between 700 and 800. It’s believed that there were as many as 50,000 when Europeans first came to North America.

Now, grizzlies have returned to roughly 6% of their former range, with at least 1,913 individuals in the lower 48 states, according to a five-year status review published in March. In Canada, there are an estimated 25,000, while Alaska is home to roughly 30,000.

In Washington, a plan to reintroduce them in the North Cascades was halted in 2020 by the Interior Department, although the decision is being reviewed by a federal court.

The news proves that “we have grizzly bears in Washington and that they can coexist peacefully with people,” and bolsters the case for reintroduction in the North Cascades, according to Joe Scott, Conservation Northwest’s grizzly program lead.

“Without grizzlies in the Cascades the job is not done and the ecosystem is a mere shadow of what it once was … and can be again,” he said in a statement.

A Kalispel Tribal biologist praised the news, which holds particular significance for a tribe that once used and inhabited land from Lake Pend Oreille north to the mouth of the Salmo River near British Columbia and east into Montana. Since 1992, when the tribe started its natural resources department, it has worked to return native species - including grizzly bears - to their traditional lands.

“Hopefully we can continue to survey and collar bears in this portion of the recovery area to build an accurate population model and better understand how they are using the Selkirk Mountains and the adjoining ecosystems,” said Bart George, a biologist with the Kalispel Tribe, in an email. “The Tribe will continue to support grizzly bear research and recovery efforts while the population moves towards federal delisting criteria.”

Other reactions were less glowing, with many online raising concerns about safety, especially in light of a fatal bear attack in Montana and other encounters throughout the West.

Still, grizzly bear attacks – or bear attacks of any kind – remain rare. On average, grizzly bears kill one person every three years in the lower 48.

But, conflict is on the rise as bear populations increase and as more humans move into rural areas and flock to outdoor recreation. The pandemic accelerated that trend. The year 2020 was a record year for grizzly bear attacks, with 13 recorded in the lower 48.

All of which puts the impetus on humans to be bear aware, said Prince, the WDFW district biologist.

“Be safe out there and be prepared,” she said. “Your risk of encountering one is still very, very low. But carry your bear spray.”

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