History, North Cascades, Trip reports

The last grizzly in the North Cascades

Grizzly bear
Grizzly bear (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife photo)

Sitting trailside at Easy Pass, the dramatic views sweep from 8,970-foot Black Peak to glacier-draped 9,087-foot Mount Logan. Far below, Fisher Creek slashes down from its headwaters on Fisher Peak through a steep talus-sided valley dotted with year-round snow fields. Subalpine meadows intersperse with stringer stands of firs and larches clinging to the slopes. It’s a classically breathtaking North Cascades vista: high rocky peaks plunging precipitously into V-shaped creek valleys, brilliant fall foliage layering strokes of color onto the black-gray rock.

Gazing down into the Fisher Creek basin, looking for bears is instinctive. It’s perfect habitat: an isolated and remote valley with meadows full of berries and other tasty plants, a glacier-chilled rushing creek, and few people. In this starkly beautiful place almost a half-century ago, a hunter made the last documented killing of a grizzly in the North Cascades.

Fisher Creek basin from Easy Pass
Looking into Fisher Creek basin from Easy Pass (Lauren Danner photo)

It started as a regular hunting trip for Rocky and Lenora Wilson, longtime packers and guides who lived in a cabin on the upper Cascade River. Rocky Wilson was a prospector and owner of the Silver Queen Mine on the Cascade’s south fork. Lenora Wilson wrote the “Cascade South Fork News” column in the Concrete Herald. The couple knew the North Cascades intimately, having fished, hunted, and mined there for decades.

In September 1967 they were camped in the Fisher Creek basin, a favorite spot, on a 20-day journey to hunt buck in the high country. As the sunset cast long shadows across the valley, a large bear lumbered down to the creek near their camp. Most accounts rely on the years-later recollections of the late Jim Harris, Upper Skagit Valley resident and North Cascades National Park ranger, who recounted that Rocky Wilson “lifted his old rifle and got off a good shot. While he knew it was a big ‘un, he didn’t see that it had a shoulder hump and frosted coat until he got to the kill.” It was a grizzly. The Wilsons skinned the bear and packed out the hide. Jack’s Sport Shop in downtown Mount Vernon displayed the grizzly pelt, which measured 6’10” from nose to tail, for many years.

Reading Lenora Wilson’s column in the Concrete Herald, however, suggests that certain details of the grizzly encounter may have become jumbled over time, as memories faded and stories intermingled. For example, Harris’s account says the Wilsons packed into Fisher Creek from the Thunder Creek trailhead on Diablo Lake. In contrast, Lenora’s “Cascade South Fork News” column published the week they returned describes their route as a “50 mile loop up Ruby Creek, Granite, over Easy Pass and into Fisher Basin,” while an earlier trip in late July had followed the Thunder Creek route. Either way, it’s a long loop, and the stories agree that the bear was shot in Fisher Creek basin.

A more intriguing discrepancy has to do with who actually shot the bear. Harris, who likely heard the story directly from Rocky Wilson, implies the couple was alone. Lenora’s contemporaneous column indicates the “Jesse Wilsons” were on the trip as well. As near as I can figure, Jesse was Rocky’s son or perhaps his brother, visiting with his wife from their home near San Diego. The appearance of the Jesse Wilsons adds an element of mystery to the story, because credit for the bear kill has long been attributed to Rocky Wilson. But in the column published October 4, 1967, the week she returned from the high country, Lenora writes that Rocky had a permit to hunt goats, while Jesse had a bear permit. In Fisher Creek basin, she says, “Rocky got his goat and Jesse his bear.” The goat is praised for its 9-inch horns and a “prize hide,” but the bear isn’t mentioned again. It’s possible, of course, that Jesse shot a black bear, which are often found on the slopes of the basin, and Rocky shot the grizzly later in the trip. A 1983 Washington Department of Game study that lists grizzly sightings in the North Cascades recorded since the mid-1800s attributes the kill to Rocky Wilson and notes that Lenora wrote an account of the event for her boss at the Concrete Herald, Charles Dwelley. Perhaps it languishes in the newspaper’s files still, waiting for a tenacious researcher to find it and resolve the different stories.

Curious though these somewhat contradictory accounts are, the fact remains that the bear shot in Fisher Creek basin in September 1967 was the last known grizzly killed in the North Cascades. A year later, Fisher Creek basin became part of North Cascades National Park and hunting was prohibited. Whether Wilson’s bear was the last grizzly living in the North Cascades is still being debated. Grizzly sightings have been reported sporadically since the park’s creation, but few have been verified.

Since the earliest days of Euro-American settlement in North America, grizzlies have had a public relations problem. The bears’ reputation for fearsomeness can be traced on paper as early as the mid-1600s, but it was the journals of Lewis and Clark that cemented this image. Although native peoples warned the expedition about the grizzly’s ferocity and strength, the first few bears the men spotted ran away, leading Meriwether Lewis to “presume that they are extreemly ware and shy.” That misapprehension was emphatically dispelled in May 1805 when William Clark and an expedition member shot a 600-pound male grizzly 10 times, then watched it swim away before it finally died on a sandbar. Clark wrote the bear was a “verry large and a turrible looking animal, which we found verry hard to kill.” That experience set the tone for the remainder of the expedition. After a wounded grizzly chased one man for more than a half-mile, Lewis decided  “these bear being so hard to die reather intimedates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen.” It was Lewis and Clark, too, who gave the grizzly its common name; after variously describing the bears as yellow, white, red, brown, black, gray, it was “grizzly” (grizzled, meaning dark and light hairs interspersed) that stuck. Today the bear’s fur is sometimes described as silvertip or frosted.

Historic and current range of grizzly bear
Historic and current range of grizzly bears (map from Western Wildlife Outreach)

In the ensuing 200-plus years, grizzlies were hunted to near-extinction, their numbers plummeting from as many as 100,000 bears to about 2,000 today. A map of their historic and current range shows how much terrain they have lost; in the United States, 95 percent of the bears’ original habitat is gone. Today, most grizzlies in the lower 48 are found in Montana and Wyoming, where they are a major tourist draw for Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

It’s been a perilous existence for the grizzly, whose fortunes finally began to improve with the adoption of the Endangered Species Act. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the grizzly as threatened, which made killing the bears (except in self-defense) a federal crime. The agency created four grizzly recovery areas, geographic zones where it would focus its efforts. All were in Montana and Wyoming (Yellowstone, the greater Glacier region, and the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains in northwest Montana) except the Selkirk Mountains in northwest Idaho and northeastern Washington. Although the concept of recovery zones has been criticized because it can isolate the bears, preventing genetic distribution that can help ensure robustness in the species, the recovery zones are largely federal lands and notionally less subject to political debate.

Within a few years, scientists were pondering additional recovery zones, including the North Cascades. But bureaucratic turf wars and lack of coordination plagued the existing zones. To address this problem, USFWS in 1983 created the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), bringing together federal and state officials under one umbrella. It created a separate subcommittee for each zone but gave all access to the same information and resources. The next year, the IGBC added the North Cascades as an evaluation area. The Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) began an evaluation study in 1985.

Grizzly caught on remote camera in British Columbia
Grizzly bear caught on remote camera in Manning Provincial Park, about 15 miles north of the U.S. border, in 2010 (source: Western Wildlife Outreach).

Wildlife scientists believe the North Cascades is home to perhaps five to 10 grizzlies, though they are rarely seen in the park complex and surrounding lands (remote cameras captured images of grizzlies 10 miles north of the border in 2010 and 2012). A hiker took a photo of a bear at Cascade Pass in 2010 that scientists initially believed was a grizzly, but that conclusion has since been questioned. Previous confirmed sightings (comprised of tracks, scat, hair, photographs, or other evidence) include one in 1996 at Glacier Peak and one in 1991 in the Thunder Creek drainage, not all that far from where Rocky Wilson shot his bear. Grizzlies reproduce slowly, and there aren’t enough in the North Cascades for them to repopulate the region without human help. For the North Cascades to have a viable grizzly population, bears will have to be transplanted in from other areas. Even then, achieving a self-sustaining, healthy population will likely take a century or more.

In 1993 the USFWS declared almost 10,000 square miles of the region an “official recovery zone” for the animals, creating a path for possible restoration. Four years later, a chapter on the North Cascades Ecosystem was added to the National Grizzly Recovery Plan. Lack of political will and funding has hampered action on restoring the grizzly population in the North Cascades despite its status as the largest potential habitat in the lower forty-eight. Most of the small amount of federal funding for grizzly research is spent in the Rocky Mountains, where the species has rebounded thanks to concerted efforts. The North Cascades lack one feature that make the Rockies attractive for recovery efforts: natural corridors like the Yellowstone-to-Yukon through which grizzlies can travel to other areas. A grizzly in Glacier National Park could conceivably move to, say, the Selkirks in northeastern Washington and mate with local bears. This is important for promoting genetic diversity in the species. Roads and railroads, which block natural corridors, are major deterrents to grizzly expansion. Although the North Cascades is mostly roadless, Highway 20 is one such barrier, as are roads through the Fraser River region in southern British Columbia, an area generally considered to be the northern limit of the North Cascades.

In 2014, the National Park Service announced it would work with USFWS and provide much of the funding for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on restoring grizzlies in the North Cascades. Debate over grizzly recovery was reenergized. Public hearings are an important part of the process, and unsurprisingly, the prospect of a viable grizzly population, which scientists suggest would eventually comprise 200-400 bears, has sparked fierce debate. Many are concerned about grizzlies’ impact on livestock that range adjacent to the park complex. Others don’t want recreation access restricted; some trails and roads could be closed during certain times of year. And many are simply afraid of grizzlies. Public opinion generally favors restoration, but all viewpoints must be carefully considered, a point made saliently in ecologist and filmmaker Chris Morgan’s recent short film, Wanted: Grizzly Bears?

A draft recommendation is expected this fall and the entire EIS process will take three years, at which time a “preferred alternative” will be finalized. It remains to be seen whether the few bears that may still roam the North Cascades will survive the slow grind of government process.

Should grizzlies be restored to the North Cascades? I think so. Rocky Wilson had no idea that the grizzly he shot in Fisher Creek basin in 1967 would take on such historical significance. It marked the end of a way of life in the North Cascades, one that was largely displaced by the national park and the completion of the North Cascades Highway in 1972. Just as the park’s existence depends on humans, so does the grizzly’s. In the end, we humans will decide the fate of this magnificent creature. As David Knibb points out in his excellent and comprehensive book, Grizzly Wars, the bear’s “ultimate value and purpose may be to test our willingness to share part of Earth with a wild and fearsome creature that remains as intolerant of us as we have been of it.” Some, myself included, feel grizzly restoration would be the finishing touch on the crown jewel wilderness of the North Cascades. As Seattle Times writer Ron Judd suggests, “Without the grizzly the land is still wild, yes. But not humbling.” I, for one, believe a little more humility in our relationship with nature would be a good thing. And I suspect Rocky Wilson would agree.

Mount Logan North Cascades National Park
Seen from Easy Pass, Mount Logan towers above Fisher Creek (Lauren Danner photo)

Additional resources:
– EIS information and timeline
– North Cascades Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan newsletter
– IGBC North Cascades information
– Conservation Northwest’s grizzly page has extensive resources
– Hiking guidebook author Craig Romano’s thoughtful perspective on grizzly restoration

2 thoughts on “The last grizzly in the North Cascades

Comments are closed.