A dead grizzly bear cub found on a Whatcom County beach last week is a reminder that the U.S. government could restart an effort to reintroduce grizzlies to Washington's North Cascades, a local conservationist said.
The young male bear was discovered on the shore near Cherry Point, according to The Bellingham Herald. It likely washed up there from British Columbia, said Joe Scott, international programs director at Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit focused on protecting and restoring local wild lands and wildlife. The closest known population of grizzlies lives in the Squamish area, north of Vancouver, B.C., Scott said.
There's almost no way the animal was local, considering the last credible grizzly sighting in the North Cascades was in 1996, Scott said. Farms, towns and roads separate the North Cascades from Cherry Point, anyway, he added.
"While there are currently no known resident grizzly bears in the North Cascades, grizzly populations do reside in British Columbia's Coast Range ... and are sporadically documented swimming from the mainland to Vancouver Island," the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. The department sent biologists to handle the dead bear.
"It's plausible this bear washed down during recent flooding," the department added, vowing to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian authorities to solve the mystery.
The Obama administration launched a process in 2015 to consider reintroducing grizzlies to the North Cascades, but the Trump administration halted that process in 2020 before a final analysis was released.
Scott, who's based in Bellingham, said he hopes the Whatcom County surprise "sends a message" to the Biden administration that the time has come to restart the North Cascades process, "so we can have live bears to boast about, instead of dead bears washing up on the shore from Canada."
"Let's use this as a wake-up call," he said.
Listed as a threatened species in the Lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies once occupied much of the Cascade Mountains. Their population was depleted by hunting, habitat loss and habitat degradation.
There were an estimated 15,000 grizzlies in B.C. as of 2018, according to the province. Some live in the Selkirk Mountains, which extend into the remote northeast corner of Washington.
Scott was initially surprised to hear a grizzly had been found on a beach in Western Washington.
"Then I thought about it and was less surprised," he said.
Grizzlies are good swimmers. They hunt for fish in the Squamish River and "every year, a number of bears swim from the mainland over to Vancouver Island," Scott said. "There are islands in between. It's not that big of an athletic feat, but they do have to be motivated to get there."
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists responded to the grisly scene near Cherry Point last Friday after receiving reports about a dead bear on the beach. They confirmed the animal was a male grizzly, had been dead for some time and then took samples for genetic analysis.
"The carcass was in decay and there were no obvious signs as to the bear's cause of death," according to the department.
A game warden told The Bellingham Herald that the bear was 1 to 2 years old; grizzlies are considered cubs until they reach sexual maturity, around age 5.
Could the cub have drowned while trying to swim to Vancouver Island?
"Anything could have happened," Scott said, noting the DNA samples could indicate where the bear came from.