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Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 2)

September 10th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

The grizzly has been a part of the North American continent for fifty thousand years. Grizzlies are part of the Brown Bear family that originated in Eurasia and crossed the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. For nearly 10,000 years grizzlies and humans coexisted in North America. Many first nations and indigenous tribes revered the great bear and honored it in ceremony. Many Native American legends even include the grizzly in creation stories.

North America once held as many as 100,000 grizzly bears in a range extending from the northernmost tip of Alaska, across the Yukon, down through the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges of Washington, Oregon, and California; down the entire stretch of the Rocky Mountains; into the great plains as far east as Minnesota and down to Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

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Today the grizzly bear inhabits a mere 2% of its former range in the contiguous United States.

How did an animal as great as the grizzly, a top predator in the ecosystems it inhabited, nearly reach the point of extermination?

To answer this question we need only look to one of America’s proudest accomplishments: the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The grizzly bear has been an animal surrounded by myth and has been associated with trepidation and animosity since the Lewis and Clark Expedition first came across the large bruin in 1804. Journals from the expedition described the grizzly as a “monster bear and a most terrible enemy.” The killing and eradication began with this expedition where they were said to have killed about 40 grizzlies.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned, Europeans began moving west and encountering grizzlies along the way. Bill Schneider (2004) states in his book Where the Grizzly Walks that upon the discovery of the grizzly, taxonomist George Ord gave it the scientific name Ursus horriblis, or “horrible bear.” It seemed that the great bear was doomed from the moment the white man came across it.

In the mid-1800’s rapid expansion west began in the United States. Gold was discovered in California, sending a horde of people to the golden state. Washington and Oregon began to grow as well, as the fur trade attracted rough and grizzled mountain men in search of striking it rich not from gold however, but from animal pelts. In 1810, two British fur-trading companies combined forces and merged under the Name “Hudson’s Bay.” They built posts in four different locations in what is now the State of Washington and one in Vancouver, British Columbia. The main target of the fur trade was the beaver, but any fur-bearing animal was fair game, including the mighty grizzly.

The fur trade eliminated what was once a friendly relationship between the native tribes and the grizzly. White settlers set up shop and would pay the natives to do the hunting for them. According to David Knibb (2010) in The Grizzly Wars, over 4000 grizzly hides were shipped from various fur trading posts throughout the Northwest in a thirty-year period with an estimated 15 to 20 percent coming from the North Cascades region. Knibb stated that by 1860 a grizzly population in the North Cascades that once numbered near one thousand had been reduced to less than 350. Two more waves of killing further reduced the grizzly population in the years to follow in the North Cascades.

After the booming years of the fur trade, prospectors came to the mountains, killing off an estimated 200 grizzlies while in search of gold. The final wave came when grazing opened up in the west and ranchers began killing grizzlies to protect their sheep and cattle. Knibb states that between 1900 and 1960 ranchers killed thirty-five grizzlies. Then, in 1967 in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Rocky Wilson killed the last grizzly ever shot in the state of Washington.

In just over 150 years a grizzly population of 1000, had all but been exterminated from Washington.

Occasionally there will be a sighting or a grizzly track in the mud, but since 1967 confirmed grizzly sightings in the North Cascades have been few and far between. The last confirmed grizzly sighting on the American side of the border came in 1996, and the last grizzly spotted in the entire ecosystem was in 2010 just north of the U.S. border in British Columbia.

Today there seem to be more Sasquatch sightings in the North Cascades than grizzly bears, but hope remains.

Read Part One at chattermarks.ncascades.org/naturalist-notes/grizzly-bears-in-the-pacific-northwest-1 and Mike’s series on wolves at chattermarks.ncascades.org/tag/howling-to-be-heard.

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