Grizzly Bear Recovery in Washington State: The Good, the Bad and the ‘Horribilis’

A “verry large and turrible looking animal” was how William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, described the beast they encountered shortly after crossing into the Northern Rockies. The pair had dismissed tales from natives describing a bear larger and more ferocious than the bears they hunted back east. Meriwether Lewis, tasked with scientifically describing what he saw on their journey, compared this animal with those black bears by saying “it is a much more furious and formidable anamal, and will frequently pursue the hunter when wounded.” It was described as “grisley” perhaps for their temperament or for their brown fur that is frequently tipped with white or gold giving them a grizzled appearance. Either way Ursus arctos horribilis, or the Horrible Northern Bear, was named for that frightening encounter by the US naturalist.

Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress

Adult female grizzly bears weigh in on average from 290-400 lbs., adult males from 400-790 lbs. with the largest on record being 1500 lbs. They are five to eight feet in length, are capable of running 30 to 40 mph and may live on average 25 years in the wild.

Adult grizzlies are characterized by a pronounced shoulder hump where their massive shoulder scapula and associated muscles attach to the backbone and light-colored front claws measuring 2–4 inches in length. These features give the bear additional strength to dig for roots, tear through logs looking for food and dig out dens in the winter. They also have short rounded ears and a dished in facial profile. Their color ranges from light tan to dark brown.

Grizzlies hibernate for 5–7 months each year depending on location, though not a hardened rule, hibernation is longer further north and on higher elevation slopes such as in Yellowstone, Glacier or the Northern Rockies where snow is deeper and more persistent. While hibernating, female grizzly bears give birth to their young, who then nurse for the remainder of the hibernation period. Before this, she must prepare a den, and eat an immense amount of food as they need much body fat to sustain them during hibernation. As omnivorous carnivores their diets consist of both plants and animals. Much of their diet is comprised of berries, leaves, grasses and nuts.

Due to many factors, grizzlies have one of the lowest reproductive rates of all mammals in North America. They do not achieve sexual maturity until the age of five, cubs are nursed for two years during which time the mother does not mate and typically she will not produce another litter for three or more years. Unlike the more easy-going black bear, mother grizzlies are ferociously protective of their cubs and are able to defend them against much larger male bears. Aside from these females with cubs, grizzlies are solitary animals although they may gather around water sources when salmon spawn.

One of eight sub species of the Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos), the Grizzly once ranged from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. They were so numerous with an estimated population of 50,000 to 100,000, “early settlers wrote of them grazing like cattle on clover fields.” Now, aside from their Alaskan and Canadian populations, the Grizzly bear occupies only 2% of their historical habitat and number just over 1,000 individuals. Sadly, these bears were almost wiped out from fur trading, hunting and habitat fragmentation.

There are six recovery zones for grizzly bears in the lower 48 states:

  • Bitterroot in in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in western Montana and northeastern Idaho.
  • Yellowstone in all of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as well as portions of northwest Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southwest Montana.
  • Northern Continental Divide in Northwestern Montana
  • Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak in northwestern Montana and northeastern Idaho
  • North Cascades in Washington from the US-Canada border south to Interstate 90
Map courtesy of the US Department of Fish and wildlife

In Washington State, according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), as of 2018, after an augmentation program, the Selkirk recovery zone is home to an estimated 55 to 60 grizzly bears. In the North Cascades recovery zone grizzly bear populations are estimated to be fewer than 20 bears with no resident population. The last confirmed sighting in the area was in 1996.

In the fall of 2014, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife initiated the process of an environmental impact statement to begin the recovery process of grizzly bears to the North Cascades region. The final plan and environmental impact statement were released in the spring of 2017 with a public comment period following. The National Park Service is in the process of reviewing the public comments and preparing the finalized impact statement.

This recovery zone is, according to the IGBC, “one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land remaining in the lower 48 states, encompassing approximately 9,800 square miles within north central Washington.” 88% is federal land, 7% state land, 3% private land and 1% municipal and county lands. 60% of this land has no motorized vehicle access. This last percentage is important because grizzly bears are only found in large areas of undisturbed land. The home range for one grizzly bear may be up to 600 square miles.  The most important part of grizzly bear recovery is to find enough habitat. Roads seem to be one of the biggest threats to their habitat and this area has very few roads.

The Good

What these bears can do for an ecosystem is well documented. A study done by Oregon State University shows that bears are primary small fruit seed dispersers in southeast Alaska. Unlike birds who pluck fruits one or two at a time, bears eat berries in vast quantities and then disperse them through their scat. They help plant diversity through eating, and pooping, as well as through their digging habits. In looking for food they turn over the soil which aerates it and leads to positive changes in plant life.

In addition, by regulating their prey they control population numbers which in turn prevents ungulate diseases and helps healthy herd members thrive. They encourage herds to move along which improves plant diversity by preventing overgrazing. Lastly, these large predators help smaller scavengers survive by providing a food source through carrion.

The Bad

No one would deny that grizzly bears are more aggressive than black bears. In an encounter with humans a black bear will frequently turn and run, but the grizzly is far more offensive than defensive. Even though this bear normally avoids people, its temperament can quickly change if cornered, surprised, or a mother’s cub is endangered. Most human-bear conflict comes from surprising a bear at close range, with cubs or protecting food. Because of this, good bear habitat must have areas that are isolated from development, recreation, logging, mining, farming and ranching.

Ranchers understandably worry about adding another large predator that would look at their livestock as food. There has already been much conflict in the general area regarding the gray wolf, and grizzly bear recovery will likely meet the same protests. The process will be slow moving due to those concerns and the bears own slow reproduction habits. Likely reaching the goal of a self-sustaining population of 200 bears will take a century to achieve.

The ‘Horribilis’

So why save this icon of the American west in our state? What would be so bad about letting it go? To many they are a part of cultural history, to others a vital link in a healthy ecosystem and important to the survival of all the species that call the area home. Still the concerns of all who live and recreate in the area need to be addressed and resolved for recovery to be successful. To let them go without considering all the options would indeed be a horrible thing for our natural world and everything in it.

Thank you to Darrell Smith of Western Wildlife Outreach and Daryl Ratajczak of Wildlife for You for checking my facts.

Comments are closed.


  • You should probably make more of an effort to fact check using non partisan or unbiased sources. Not saying any of your info is wrong, but rather it’s not a good idea to use sources that are obviously advocates to fact check. The US Fish and Wildlife Service or your state department of Fish and Wildlife are probably good places to start, even the international body IUCN. Good luck and thanks for writing.

    1. Excellent point. Going to bear advocates for information is like asking the flies to guard the poop.

  • Well I did. My contact at the WDFW didn’t get back to me but as you can see by the article there are many government sources cited as well as plain old wikipedia. Not sure which sources you are seeing as partisan but I use sources that get back to me. Both men are wildlife biologists and the only facts I had them check were basic bear biology which I would argue is not a partisan issue.

    1. Well, if they gave you their facts about “bears are only found on large areas of undisturbed land.” False; they are often found in residents yards, where their children play and their dogs and domestic pets reside. Take a look at the grizzlies in Stanford, Mt. in a video taken from the home of the surprised residents. These bears are dangerous, and this is not the early 1800’s. People have homes and vacation sites up virtually every canyon in the West right across the invisible line of “grizzly bear recovery zones”. In the summer the North Cascades weekend population of humans is in the tens of thousands, and those are just the ones on the trails and streams with their mountain bikes, climbing gear, and families in remote campgrounds. Populations of bears in our large national parks, where they have traditionally and recently had a viable population is fine. Re-introducing them to areas that historically have been without them for decades is not okay. They will not stay home or abide by that invisible line, and they WILL be a threat and get into trouble or worse. Read about what happened to the two bears that visited Stanford, Mt., and the rightful outcome. These bear do no need to inhabit every acre of their “historical range” in the year 2020. If so, then move everyone out of the large cities that sit on former grizzly habitat.

  • Som Sai implies that any fact is best subjected to his opinion. Lacking a factual error, the next best thing is to make a general statement to cast doubt on an entire article. “Not saying any of your info is wrong, BUT . . .. ” Perhaps, Som Sai could point to a specific item in the article, and then post a link to a competent source refuting the item. That, however, would take some knowledge of the subject, and worse, of the literature. Som Sai cites USFWS as an unbiased source, obviously ignorant of its bias to hunting and ranching interests, or more likely, because Som Sai shares that bias. Some say Som Sai is totally unaware of USFWS publishing “North America Fauna” after a 21-year hiatus to push a generally discredited account of Canis lupus spp written by its and related agency employees, and then using that internally created document as best available science in a proposed action. Given that Som Sai cited no errors, just biased citations, some say Som Sai could plagiarize the article, put in unbiased citations that state the same facts as the original article, and submit it to Living Snoqualmie as an original work.

  • Som sai actually said something true. As to those seeking proof well you obviously dont know your own article or very much about grizzly bears. So lets try to increase your knowledge. This particular genus is very adaptable. Road and humans pose little threat in their brain. They have no fear of anything so to say they need six hundred sq mile territory is disingenuous. Their present Yellowstone territory has been overrun since the 1990s and currently they are known to exist several hundred miles beyond yellowstone. With unconfirmed sitings as far away as Colorado.
    Population numbers in that ecosystem alone are well over the usfws estimates of 1700 bear which far exceeds the areas ability to support. Yes they prefer wilderness but will go anywhere. As evidenced by current knowledge. They are not endangered so why entroduce them anywhere

    1. What I said was “The most important part of grizzly bear recovery is to find enough habitat. Roads seem to be one of the biggest threats to their habitat and this area has very few roads.” Not whether or not they “care” about roads, only that the best habitat has none. If not having human bear conflict is the goal having less access would be a good way to achieve that goal, yes?

  • Mellisa: As a Snoqualmie Valley resident and retired wildlife biologist and educator, applaud you article. Great job! Thank you.

  • Hi Melissa, Thanks for your reply, and your article did seem fairly unbiased it was only the links to Western Wildlife Outreach and Wildlife for You that kind of made be go “whoa there”. That interagency committee has at one time or another had the leading researchers in the field. On topics that generate lots of interest and are sometimes contentious I’ve found wiki also to be surprisingly good. I also ask questions of wildlife biologists when I meet them in person, even if they haven’t researched the species I’m asking about they give insightful answers, also I’ve noticed it’s often impossible to tell which “side” of an issue wildlife biologists are on. Often enough they aren’t on a side, but simply interested in good science. Often too, after a little conversation I ask wildlife biologists if they are certified. Certification requires not only education but a certain level of experience in the field, sometimes people take the courses and get the degree but aren’t cut out to be scientists, they just like animals. It’s like the law or medicine, licensure can be important.

    Wildlife Managers are also specialists that can give insight into difficult to manage species such as the griz. Biology can be the easy part, managers have to take into consideration all of the factors involved, social and political, that’s where it gets messy. When to cull and how to handle the resultant political issues. Management is often done by biologists who also are good managing us two legged critters. Again thanks for writing.

    1. Well I am a fairly well-educated person who can manage to check credentials. As you said the article was “fairly” unbiased so I’m not sure why you felt the need to explain all this to me. I’ve talked to many experts of all kinds over the years and I assure you I can deal with researching facts. I used the National Resources Defense Fund, Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, the USDFW, the Interagency Grizzly bear committee, the National Park Service and Oregon State University. In addition, two Wildlife Biologists who are educated, well-read men who have spent their lives learning about, working with and educating others about the animals we share the planet with. Learning comes from listening to all the resources we have at hand. So thanks but I’ve got this one.

    2. Som Sai, it is excellent that you question the credentials of folks providing biological information. All too often the public accepts “facts” from less than desirable sources. If it would put you at ease I will gladly provide you details of my credentials. Here are but a few bios from some of the instructors at Wildlife for You.

      You will see, they are not your run of the mill bios. Again, it’s good you seek credible sources.

  • “RECOVERY” = ?
    1) Did the people who live near, use those areas and employ State + federal employed biologists ask them to do so.
    2) Did the people’s employees get the people who live near and use those areas permition to do so esp outdoorsman, sportsman, hunters and fisherman?
    3) Without overwhelming support from the people that live near and use those places that will be affected at some time- it should be a no go.

    1. They did have a lengthy comment period in which those who may be effected could voice opinions. I’m sure there will be more of those to come.

  • I thank the grizzly bear has a right to live and be protected and left alone as long as they don’t bother people and people don’t bother them they have a right like all God’s creation to live in harmony and not be poached and killed by human .. America needs to save there wildfire and save wild places because when they are gone you can’t bring them back god bless America

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