LAKE WENATCHEE -- A large bear spotted three weeks ago in the Chiwawa River Valley north of Lake Wenatchee may actually be one of the secretive North Cascades grizzly bears, experts say.
A hiker, a law enforcement officer and a biology graduate student all saw the bear and thought it was a grizzly based on what looked like a large shoulder hump, said Chris Morgan, co-director of the Bellingham-based Grizzly Bear Outreach Project.
"This could be one of the best possibilities of a grizzly bear we've had in quite awhile," he said, noting a grainy picture was taken of the animal from a distance. "It's pretty convincing."
Morgan said the bear was standing on its hind legs eating berries from a mountain ashberry at the time.
The sighting was reported to the Outreach Project, which is funded by federal agencies to do public education on grizzly bears in the North Cascades.
It also went to about a dozen government agencies and private organizations that work on grizzly issues in the region.
The area where it was seen was just 10 miles from where a mother bear and two cubs -- also strongly believed to be grizzlies -- were seen a few years ago, Morgan said.
After the recent sighting, a conservation organization was planning to install a remote motion-sensor camera in the area to hopefully get a picture of the bear.
Biologists were also going to search for bear scat to test in order to verify if it was from a grizzly, he added.
About 30 grizzly bear sightings with pictures are reported each year in the North Cascades, he said.
All but a few of them have been determined to be large, brown-colored black bears.
But a couple of reports are undetermined. In those cases, the bears in pictures appear to have a hump but the photographs are too grainy or were taken from too great a distance to be conclusive, he said.
"They are like Sasquatch pictures," Morgan said. "They are taken from 200 yards away with a disposable camera and you just can't tell anything for sure."
Morgan said trying to prove there are grizzly bears in the North Cascades is like "finding a needle in a haystack."
Government agencies believe there are perhaps 20 of them in the 10,000-square-mile North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area, which includes parts of Chelan and Okanogan counties.
But there has not been confirmation of a grizzly in the region in decades.
"We've had some pretty convincing reports," he said. "But none convincing enough to say for sure. If we had some physical proof that would be a huge, huge thing."
The North Cascades is one of six grizzly bear recovery zones established by the federal government in the West after the bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975.
The Washington recovery zone is the only one that has not completed an environmental impact statement to determine how the bears should be recovered.