Alexandra Davis knew there was a bear snooping around her yard, busting up her fence and getting into her chicken feed.
This isn’t terribly unusual at her place, several miles up a dirt road in the Onion Creek area of Stevens County. But when she saw its tracks, she knew it wasn’t one of the neighborhood black bears.
It was a grizzly.
“The tracks in the driveway were bigger than my feet,” Davis said. “They were big old tracks, and you could see the claws.”
The confirmation that it was a grizzly bear led to efforts to fix the problem with better storage for chicken feed and an electric fence. Neither move worked – the bear chewed through the new feed barrel and despite the fence, it still found its way into the coop and killed a few chickens.
As a result, wildlife officials trapped the bear and moved it to the Selkirk Mountains last week.
The revelation that a grizzly bear was present wasn’t a big surprise for Davis, who said she and neighbors have known for years they were there.
The biologists who study the bears have received few reports of them in the area, which is well outside of the species’ known distribution in Washington.
“In this area, for a grizzly bear getting into chicken coops, it’s certainly a rare event,” said Wayne Kasworm, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery program.
Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, following a decades long decline in their numbers and distribution. Biologists estimate there are roughly 2,000 grizzlies left, split between a few different populations in designated recovery zones.
The recovery zone closest to Onion Creek is the Selkirk ecosystem, which consists of parts of British Columbia, North Idaho and a chunk of Washington east of the Pend Oreille River. Kasworm said there are likely 90 to 100 bears living there.
Onion Creek is well outside the estimated distribution for the Selkirk population. Kasworm said he’d seen a photo of a grizzly in the same general area last year, but otherwise had few reports of the species in the mountains north of Colville.
Kasworm, who is based in Libby, Montana, traveled to Washington to help the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Fish and Wildlife trap and relocate the bear last week.
He said the bear was a male and likely 3 or 4 years old. Teeth samples will be sent to a lab to get a more precise age.
How it ended up in Onion Creek is unclear. It could have wandered south from Canada, which is less than 20 miles north and has a significant grizzly population. It also could have come west from the mountains along the Idaho-Washington border.
Or it could have been living there for longer than anyone realizes.
“It could be a bear that’s been around there for a while and has not gotten observed by people,” Kasworm said.
Relocation was chosen instead of killing the bear because of its age and because it appeared to be the first time it had a run-in with people, Kasworm said.
The bear was released in a remote part of the Selkirks north of Sullivan Lake – an area with a known grizzly population that’s far from people.
“It was a decision made to at least get him some distance away and also put him into the recovery area where we have grizzly bears,” Kasworm said.
The bear was fitted with a radio collar and will be monitored.
Davis has lived in Onion Creek for about 20 years. Conflict with predators is a growing problem, she said. Earlier this year, one of her family’s dogs was attacked by a wolf.
A couple days after the grizzly was moved, another bear was in her backyard.
She and her family are working on reinforcing their fences and putting up more electric fence.
She’s worried another grizzly might be hanging around. Neighbors believed there was a set of two in the area.
“It’s still high alert,” Davis said.