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The Truth About Bears: The Mystery

Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez
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Illustration by Andy Potts

We run into a bear at the end of our first day looking for grizzlies in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind: a runty black, not much bigger than a large Rottweiler, that ambles past our camp at Copper Creek. Probably a few thousand calories short of its daily huckleberry haul, it ignores us without so much as a glance before leaving a splat of half-digested mixed-berry casserole on the trail.

Glossy black fur, Roman nose, big ears: From 30 yards away, there’s no way I’d mistake it for its larger cousin, but it still feels like a good omen. As the bear gains distance in the dimming twilight, it mixes with its own shadow, inflating in my sight as it noses through an electric-green huckleberry understory and past dense trunks of silver fir. It’s easy to believe that if we’re lucky enough to find a grizzly out here, it might look a lot like this. From now on, every movement—a jiggling twig, a fleeting shadow—catches my eye as a potential sign of the Griz.

My odds of seeing one hover only slightly above my chances of high-fiving Sasquatch. Nobody really knows exactly how many isolated grizzlies hide in the tangle of mile-deep river canyons, old-growth forests, city-size glaciers, dragon-tail ridges, and tilted heather meadows that knot together the greater North Cascades ecosystem. It’s a border-straddling wilderness stronghold that’s bigger than Maryland. Since a hunter shot the last grizzly bear here—in Fisher Creek Basin in 1967—the evidence supporting their existence has been largely the same as that supporting Bigfoot’s: split-second glimpses from a distance, secondhand accounts, and errant footprints leading toward cryptozoological myth. Without any physical or photographic evidence, hopeful biologists and conservationists subsisted on a slow trickle of dubious sightings, sometimes several years apart. A 14-year drought after 1996 convinced many that the Cascades grizzly was nothing but a legend.

But then came the miracle photo: In October 2010, a hiker snapped a shot of a fat, healthy grizzly near Cascade Pass, too far south to be a Canadian bear on a work visa. It was the first confirmed photo of a live grizzly in the North Cascades in almost 50 years: a Loch Ness-caliber money shot.

The photo dropped a month after I moved to Seattle, and the sheer wonder of it floored me like images from a Mars rover landing: grizzlies! A mere two-and-a-half hours from a major metropolitan area, closer than anywhere else in the country! Two years later, I’m still hopped up on possibility—and so is Bill Gaines, an independent wildlife ecologist and U.S. Forest Service veteran. He serves as a principal investigator for the Cascade Carnivore Connectivity Project, a joint effort between academia and government aimed at mapping how carnivores move and breed between ecosystems, and how roads affect their conservation and recovery. The photo poured gasoline on the group’s most ambitious project yet: a three-year survey funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service targeted at determining the status of the grizzly population and its potential recovery. The USFWS has a mandate to support recovery efforts for every endangered species—but it can’t even make baby steps until biologists know how many animals they’re dealing with, and thus how best to proceed. For Cascade grizzlies, that number is still a blank.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” says Gaines. “That photo was pretty exciting. But it’s like looking for a moving needle in a haystack. Three haystacks, actually—there’s a lot of luck involved.”

He and others have been searching for grizzlies here since the late 1980s. They believe Cascade grizzlies should be a wildlife conservation cause célèbre, like Yellowstone’s wolves in the 1990s. While grizzly populations boom in other Lower 48 recovery zones, Cascades grizzlies barely hang on, despite having access to arguably the best habitat. We pushed bears so deep into the wild that they backed into a genetic bottleneck, where fragmented populations face grim prospects for breeding, or even finding each other.
And yet they survive. Biologists believe as many as 20 grizzlies persist in Washington’s Cascades, though pessimists (realists?) would peg that number closer to five. Another 20 or so live immediately north of the border, and their ranges overlap. Rather than reintroduce the species, bear biologists have the rare opportunity to preserve and extend an original grizzly genetic line that reaches back millennia. A romantic might even say restoring bears to their full might here, in one of the final spaces we’ve left for them, goes a little way toward atoning for centuries of persecution.

A romantic would be disheartened by the progress so far. In two years of searching, Gaines has failed to turn up so much as a grizzly eyelash. But where past surveys featured a mix of road- and trail-accessed sites, this third and final season, Gaines’s research team has refined its focus; they’re boring into the trackless, inaccessible heart of the park on foot, research equipment stowed in hulking packs. I join Gaines and two of his colleagues for their final trip of the project: a 50-mile push up and over Hannegan Pass, down into the Chilliwack River basin, and up to basecamp on obscure Easy Ridge via little-used climbers’ paths. From there, we’ll abandon even the semblance of trails for interminable bushwhacks across sketchy slopes until we drop off the edge of the world. It’s the last place a human should be, and therefore the perfect place to find our ghost grizzly.

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