OLYMPIA - Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists are waiting for DNA test results and photo analysis to determine if a bear seen May 14 in the northeast corner of Okanogan County was a grizzly.
The potential grizzly sighting by an Oroville resident on his land east of Chesaw and just a few miles south of the Canadian border is "unusual, but not totally unexpected," said WDFW District Wildlife Biologist Scott Fitkin of Winthrop, who is investigating the sighting.
The closest known population of grizzly bears is directly northeast in Canada in an area known as the Kettle-Granby Unit, where about 40 bears have Canadian government protection as a threatened species.
Washington's grizzly bear population is estimated to be 40 to 50 animals, the majority of which are believed to live 75 to 100 miles east of the May 14 sighting.
Grizzlies are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and are listed as endangered by the state.
"It is unusual, but not unheard of, for grizzlies to be sighted almost anywhere within their historic range in the upper half of Washington, particularly from the North Cascades to the Selkirk Mountains," Fitkin said.
"We have had occasional sightings of grizzlies reported throughout the Okanogan Highlands, which is the part of the county east of the Okanogan River. However, this may be the first verified observation in this area for several decades," he said.
A landowner told Fitkin that he watched the bear wander across his property at a distance of 200 to 500 feet, passing near an enclosure with two domestic sheep without incident. The bear removed a screen from a water collection barrel but no further nuisance activity was reported.
The landowner took several photos of the bear before it wandered off. The bear has not been seen since this sighting.
"Chances are the bear is just passing through in its normal course of foraging," said Fitkin.
Fitkin and another biologist documented by photo, measurement, and plaster cast several bear tracks found in mud near a spring on the property. They collected hair samples from a barbed wire fence through which the landowner reported the bear had passed, as well as bear droppings found near the tracks and hair.
The biologists also found and photographed a small dig site where a large animal had excavated a ground squirrel burrow, a common foraging behavior for grizzlies, but not typical for black bears.
Additional confirmation is expected through biologist review of the landowner's photos, and DNA lab testing of the collected hair samples. Lab results may take several weeks.
WDFW biologists are continuing to monitor the area for additional bear activity, but so far no additional signs or observations have been gathered.
"It's likely that the bear has moved on to forage naturally in other areas," Fitkin said.
Fitkin said that although grizzlies and many other wild animals can become a nuisance or even be potentially dangerous, the risk is largely controllable by human behavior.
"Don't create attractants for large carnivores," he said. "Bears want to avoid humans, and we've got to think about what might attract them and take steps to avoid problems."