Through the winter and into the spring, remarkable evidence that there is a wilder side to North Cascades National Park than many thought possible in these days of shrinking and squeezed ecosystems was stored on Joe Sebille's cellphone.
Only after he stopped to chat with a park ranger in May did he think about getting a ranger's thoughts of what he had photographed. And when he opened up his iPhone, the 26-year-old Mr. Sebille triggered a wave of excitement that swept all the way to Montana, where a team of grizzly bear experts agreed that the hump-backed bruin in the picture was indeed a grizzly, the first to be captured on film on the U.S. side of the North Cascades in perhaps 50 years.
For more than two decades biologists have been working to recover the North Cascades' grizzlies, a threatened species. And while more than a few reports of grizzly sightings in the ecosystem that stretches north to Canada are received by state and federal officials each year, most turn out to be black bears.
And then came along Joe Sebille, out enjoying a late-season hike in one of his favorite areas of the national park.
The confirming photos were taken in late October when Mr. Sebille was hiking a popular trail on the west slope of the Cascades with hopes of spotting some black bears. Perhaps his luck in capturing a grizzly was tied to the fact that he had come on a weekday, when there were fewer hikers in the area. Approaching a steep grassy meadow, with higher snow-covered peaks visible in the distance, he found himself about 75 yards from a bear.
“I wasn't trying to label it when I first saw it," Mr. Sebille, of Mount Vernon, Washington, said Saturday. While he thought it might have been a black bear, he also was willing to leave it "kind of open-ended."
“Right off the bat, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t thinking grizzly," he added.
A handful of photographs, taken by the small-equipment mechanic on an "early 2000 Olympus, a little point-and-shoot," and later transferred to his cellphone clearly show a bruin silhouetted while feasting on a hillside in the park's Upper Cascade River watershed.
Those photos have become the first confirmation of grizzlies in the park since 1996, when a biologist spotted two in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. Before that, the last confirmed photograph of a grizzly was of a dead bear, taken in 1968, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.
"Sebille knew the bear didn’t look like the black bears he had seen but didn’t realize he had seen a grizzly bear or that the sighting was unusual until he began discussing the encounter with friends and sharing his photographs," said a release issued Friday by the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Subcommitte.
When the photographs came to light in May, Park Service bear biologist Anne Braaten contacted Mr. Sebille for more information. Ms. Braaten, who is part of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Subcommittee of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, then shared the account and photographs with her peers in the group, who also believed the bear to be a grizzly.
That group passed the information on to Dr. Chris Servheen, the Montana-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, who circulated the photos to a group of grizzly bear experts to review. That group unanimously confirmed the animal in the photos as a grizzly.
The North Cascades ecosystem is one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land in the lower 48 states, encompassing approximately 9,565 square miles within north central Washington, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
Running south from the US-Canada border to Interstate 90, it includes all of the North Cascades National Park, and most of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests. Approximately 41 percent of the recovery area is within the national park or designated wilderness areas, and more than 70 percent has no motorized access.
"The North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area is directly adjacent to the Canadian portion of the ecosystem. The Canadian government considers the bears in that portion of the ecosystem to be the most endangered grizzly bear population in Canada. There are currently believed to be fewer than 20 grizzly bears in the U.S. portion of the ecosystem, with perhaps that many more in the Canadian portion," the IGBC says on its website.
“This is a significant event in the world of grizzly bear recovery,” said Becki Heath, chair of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Subcommittee. “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.”
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest biologist Bill Gaines, who is leading a grizzly bear hair-snare study currently under way in the North Cascades, said the area where the bear was sighted had already been identified as great bear habitat.
“When we started the study we convened a group of bear biologists and looked at the maps for combinations of terrain, forage and other things that would appeal to grizzly bears,” Mr. Gaines said. “The area where this bear was sighted is on our list but we have limited resources. We just haven’t gotten there yet.”
The Forest Service biologist said he hopes to get hair-snare gear into the area this field season – probably in late summer. Hair-snare studies utilize barbed wire corrals with bear-attractive scents in the center. When the bear enters the corral it leaves hairs on the surrounding fence. DNA extracted from the material can provide scientists with important information about the bear, including species, sex, and some things about parentage.
The ability to identify individual bears through DNA samples is an important tool in determining how many grizzly bears are in the North Cascades, how they are related and whether they are reproducing.
For Mr. Sebille, the excitement over his photographs has brought a rush of calls from reporters seeking details. While he's enjoying his moment in the limelight, he's also glad to be able to share his story.
"It's nice to submit my story, because it’s nice for a lot of people to know about," he said, adding that, "it definitely puts a smile on my face.”
That said, Mr. Sebille has not been back to the watershed to look for his grizzly since he took the photos.
"No, as a matter of fact, that day I hiked it, probably less than a week after that is when snow closed off the high season. Even right now there’s probably 6 feet of snow up there," he said.