Beware of These 5 Bear Hotspots in Washington

Written by Zoe Carina
Published: November 10, 2023
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The north American continent was once home to a plethora of bears. These bears lived in forested areas and avoided humans whenever possible. In some cases, indigenous people would hunt bears for their fur, claws, and other body parts. Bears would also occasionally kill humans. For the most part, the two species left one another alone.

When colonizers from overseas invaded Turtle Island, they saw the bear differently. The colonizers considered bears a nuisance that killed their livestock and took up space on land they stole for themselves. In tandem with the genocide of indigenous people on the North American continent was the mass killing of bears (and other animals).

When the mid-19th century rolled around, bear populations were a fraction of pre-colonial numbers. Through intensive regulations and management, populations levels have rebounded to about 60%.

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In a study published by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, archaeological, ethnographic, and incidental evidence found that bears have always lived in the area currently called Washington.

If you would like to visit Washington, you’ll want to keep a potential bear encounter on your rader. Here are the five hotspots for bears in Washington.

Where is Washington?

Washington state map. Discover the Beauty of Washington State through this Map.

Washington state is part of the Pacific Northwest.

©Artyom Lezhnyuk/Shutterstock.com

Washington is stolen land that the Suquamish, Duwamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, and Muckleshoot tribes lived within. Archeological evidence points to indigenous peoples living in the area 12,000 years before colonizers arrived.

Seattle is named after a Suquamish and Duwamish chief who lived from 1786 to 1866. He tried to negotiate with white colonizers to respect the rights of indigenous peoples to the invaded land. Despite building relationships, white colonizers did not see the indigenous people as fully human and continued to massacre and displace them.

Seattle successfully kept his people out of the Battle of Seattle, which was the white settlement named after the chief. Afterwards, however, colonizers forced the Suquamish and Duwamish people onto an established reservation.

Currently, 29 federally recognized tribes live in Washington.

Which Species of Bear Live in Washington?

Washington state is home to two bear species. An abundance of black bears live throughout the area. While once quite common, excessive hunting, trapping, and forest razing have nearly decimated the grizzly bear population in Washington.

The current population of grizzly bears is in the low hundreds, while black bear numbers are at about 25,000.

About the Grizzly Bear

Coastal Brown Grizzly bear carrying a salmon

Grizzly bears are omnivores.

©Kirk Hewlett/ via Getty Images

The grizzly bear lives both inland in forests with rivers or lake and along the coast. Bears that live along the coast tend to be larger than their inland counterparts. Humans call coastal grizzlies brown bears.

These animals have long, curved claws, humped shoulders, and a concaved face. Their fur can range from dark brown to blonde. Frequently, the hairs on their backs and shoulder will have white tips.

Grizzly and brown bears mainly eat berries and plants. The animals will supplement this diet with meat and fish, especially if they are along the coast.

In Washington state and according to the Federal ESA, these bears are endangered.

About the American Black Bear

curious black bear covered in honey bees

Black bears are omnivores.

©dcwcreations/Shutterstock.com

The black bear is common both in Washington and other places around the United States. These bears are smaller than the grizzly.

The short claws, pointed snout, and rounded ears distinguish the black bear. They have long and thick fur that ranges from black to light brown. Their height averages two and a half to three feet when they are standing on all fours. When they stand upright, the black bear can reach up to five feet.

The black bear primarily eats fruits, nuts, grasses, roots, bulbs, and rodents. On occasion, they will eat insects.

Where are Bears in Washington?

The grizzly bear is only in a few places in the state, the Cascade Mountains, the Selkirk Mountains, and the farthest northwest counties. Black bears, on the other hands, are everywhere in Washington except for the Columbia Basin.

#1 North Cascade Mountains

Ross Lake is a large reservoir in the North Cascade mountains of northern Washington state, USA. View from Ross Lake Overlook at Washington State Route 20.

Grizzly Bears are rare in Washington state.

©© Steven Pavlov / http://lovingwa.blogspot.com/ CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Since 1996, there has only been one grizzly bear sighting in the North Cascades. Colonizers in the area hunted the animals until almost none were left. If humans stopped hunting animals for trophies and left the bears alone, their populations will slowly increase.

There are, on record, 1,586 black bears within the North Cascades Mountains. Most people spotted young and solitary animals when out hiking.

#2 Selkirk Mountains

Grizzly bear on cliff

Grizzly bears are a subspecies of brown bears.

©Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock.com

Since 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a grizzly bear monitoring and research program in the Selkirk Mountains. Researchers successfully captured, tagged, and released 522 grizzly bears in the Washington portion of the Selkirk Mountains.

Black bear populations far outweigh grizzly bear populations in this mountain range. These animals are most commonly seen over the border in Idaho, but you’ll be able to see them in Washington as well.

#3 Okanogan Highlands

Nature of Washington State USA. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Black bears are present in most of Washington, except for the Columbia Basin.

©Velimir Zeland/Shutterstock.com

Currently, grizzly bears are not in the Okanogan Highlands. The state of Washington proposed a plan to restore the beautiful creatures to the area. Public opinion is varied, with many folks expressing support while others are vehemently opposed. While grizzly bears inhabited these lands long before these descendants of colonizers did, the fate of these animals is in these humans’ hands.

The plan would bring in three to seven bears per year for a period of 10 years. The state would classify grizzles as an experimental population, in case of emergencies.

Black bear sightings are increasing in the residential communities around Okanogan Highlands. The animals come to find food in garbage.

#4 the Enchanted Valley

A single wild black bear cub searches for food along a hillside overturning rocks among young evergreen trees. The young bear is only a couple of months old. There are flies on its fur and face.

Black bears have short claws that allow them to climb well.

©Dolores M. Harvey/Shutterstock.com

For bear spotting in the state of Washington, late spring and summer are the best seasons. There are no known grizzly bears in this area of the state, so keep your eyes peeled for black bears.

The Enchanted Valley is 13 miles into a hike. People commonly report spotting bears along various trails in this area.

#5 Seven Lakes Basin

Black bear napping on the rock

All bear species will avoid humans if at all possible and only attack if scared.

©Yobab/Shutterstock.com

Seven Lakes Basin is home to many bears during the fall, for those that prefer hiking in cooler weather. You will only see black bears in this area. The animals will most likely be stuffing their faces with blueberries and other foods in preparation for winter.

The hike is a 19-mile loop in Olympic National Park.

What To Do If You See a Bear

Grizzly bear populations are fragmented due to human colonization.

©marneejill / CC BY-SA 2.0 – License

If you spot a bear, whether grizzly or black, here is what to do:

  • Stop and take a deep breath.
  • Assess the situation. if the bear does not see you, move away quietly when it’s not looking at you. Watch the animal as you go so you can monitor its behavior.
  • If the bear walks towards you, stand up, wave your hands above your head, and talk to the bear in a low, deep voice.
  • If that doesn’t work, clap your hands, stomp your feet, yell, and stare the animal in the eyes. With a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder and wave your arms above your heads.
  • Get more aggressive the closer the bear gets.
  • Use bear spray if necessary.

Here is what NOT to do:

  • Throw anything at the bear.
  • Run away.
  • Climb a tree.

Summary of 5 Bear Hotspots in Washington

#Location
1Cascade Mountains
2Selkirk Mountains
3Okanogan Highlands
4the Enchanted Valley
5Seven Lakes Basin

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jacqui Martin/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Zoe Carina is a writer at A-Z Animals who primarily covers plants, animals, and places around the world. Zoe has been a professional copywriter and freelancer for six years and holds a bachelors degree in communications from Florida State University, which they earned in 2019. A resident of Oregon, Zoe runs a blog called Intuitive Traveler, where they write about traveling and language learning.

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