There’s smoke and heat in the air. And maybe there’s something more–something I’ve only begun to pick up after many seasons in the wilds.
I’m feeling edgy as we approach timberline, hiking through shrub fields already hounded into brilliant reds and yellows by autumn’s first frosts. The sun sifts through a thin haze that cloaks the lower shoulders of Fenn Mountain, in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In the timbered valleys below, the plumes of half a dozen spot fires rise, the consequence of three consecutive drought years. It’s an unseasonably hot September day, and sweat is pouring off my face.
As nimbly as we can under 50-pound packs, we ease down a narrow trail toward a small creek, brushing away blueberry and mountain ash branches. I walk ahead of my two companions, listening, scenting the breeze, and studying the ground. And then, something in front of me stops me dead. I signal my friends Chuck Irestone and Larry Campbell to join me and point to a faint pattern of smooth imprints leading down the trail. My heart racing, I scan the woods and then cautiously follow the marks, stooping to examine a more distinct track. A tiny ridge separates the pad from four toe prints. The toe line is curved: the unmistakable track of a black bear. We breathe deeply, at once relieved and disappointed.
We’re looking for a grizzly bear. I’ve seen many hundreds of the humpbacked, silver-tipped animals in 35 years of studying them, and I never tire of the electric experience. But seeing one here in the Bitterroot, ground zero in the great modern-day grizzly debate, would be truly special. Finding a grizzly here would change everything about this landscape for years to come.
Are they here or aren’t they? That question has plagued people on both sides of the grizzly conservation wars for more than a decade. We know this much as we head into the mountains: Grizzlies were here, for thousands of years, in huge numbers. The accounts of Lewis and Clark and other early visitors tell us the place was crawling with them. A 1.3-million-acre landscape of cirques, sprawling peaks, and pristine lakes, the Selway-Bitterroot is the third-largest wilderness in the Lower 48. Added to the adjacent 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and surrounding wildlands, the expanse is known as the Bitterroot Ecosystem–a roadless, wild area larger than New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut combined. With its plentiful food sources and massive empty spaces, it’s superlative grizzly habitat.
We also know that settlers hunted grizzlies with ferocity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, shooting and and poisoning them so methodically that in 1932, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded the last official grizzly slaying in the Bitterroot. The last confirmed tracks were spotted in 1946.
Nevertheless, there have been unofficial sightings by hunters, outfitters and guides, hikers and horse users, and
government employees. Credible scientists and conservationists continue to believe–some passionately–that a small remnant griz population still survives deep in this wilderness. In 1998, a forest service packer reported sighting a grizzly at 150 yards in the North Fork of Fish Creek. The bear had both a prominent hump and a dish-shaped face, and its hair was brown with distinctive silver tips. Soon after, another backcountry worker found “an extremely clear bear track” of grizzly proportions and characteristics. Both employees, according to a forest service report, “are experienced woodsmen and can be considered objective observers.” (Shortly thereafter, a black-bear hunter showed up in the same drainage with bear bait, and the alleged griz was never seen again.)
Grizzly recovery in the Mountain West is dependent on bears mounting a comeback in the Selway-Bitterroot. Human populations are booming around the West’s wild spaces, and the more trophy homes that get built, the more bears get sealed into national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. The Yellowstone ecosystem is an island, genetically isolated, meaning that its bear population won’t remain viable without connectivity to grizzlies in Canada. The only practical route is through these mountains. So it’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of the grizzly in the Lower 48 may well lie right here in the Bitterroot.
Conservation groups have been probing these mountains for years, looking for grizzly sign. So far they’ve turned up none. We’re here to look in a few places others haven’t–or couldn’t–and in the process maybe, just maybe, settle this controversy.