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February 2005

The Grizzly Detective: Tracking Bears in the Bitterroots

America's preeminent bear tracker backpacks Idaho's most remote wilderness looking for signs of the lost grizzlies of the Bitterroots--and winds up staring at the great bruin's future.

We fill our water bottles in tumbling Canteen Creek. My two companions are veterans of the conservation wars in the northern Rockies. Larry heads an organization called Friends of the Bitterroot, and Chuck has lent a hand with past search efforts. I’ve been fascinated with grizzlies since I returned, haunted and numb, from the Vietnam War and headed straight into the wilderness.

Grizzlies gave my life a purpose. In the 1970s, I began hauling a 90-pound backpack loaded down with a movie camera into Yellowstone and Glacier, and for 7 years I spent entire seasons tracking them. I filmed some 250 grizzlies, and in the process learned their behaviors-when they leave their dens, where they travel, what they eat. I saw, too, how much they need undisturbed wilderness. In 1985, I documented sign of what was probably the last Mexican grizzly in an island range of Chihuahua. And in the early ’90s, I led the San Juan Grizzly Search, a 5-year hunt for the last griz in that Colorado range.

Two years ago, we hiked into the Bitterroot’s Boulder Creek drainages north of here to identify the best terrain for finding grizzly sign. From atop a ridge 20 miles away, we spotted it: a collection of basins completely hemmed in by steep cirque walls. It would be challenging to get in there, but it looked like just the kind of place grizzlies would favor-an isolated region where they could browse and dig undisturbed.

On that trip, we discovered what appeared to be a single grizzly track-though we found no further evidence to confirm the find. This time, we’ll bushwhack up and over high passes and into those remote basins. An actual sighting is a long shot; we’re just hoping to see sign, since evidence of grizzly digs in high meadows lasts for years. If we find digs, we should be able to locate a day bed, a shallow depression where a bear sleeps out the heat of the day, and from there, we’ll focus on finding hair for DNA testing.

We begin to climb. A hundred yards up the trail, we cross another set of black-bear tracks and some of the best huckleberry patches I’ve seen in the Lower 48. Buffalo berry and mountain ash grow in abundance, and the wet bottoms are full of cow parsnip and other wild herbs. Brimming with the usual cover of grass and sedge, the root crops of alpine plants, this habitat is a grizzly feast waiting for diners.

The trail contours around a minor summit behind which lie two little tarns called the Cove Lakes. The trail splits here, and in fading light we drop down into the basin and look for a place to camp. A winter avalanche sheered off a broad swath of lakeside trees, which are stacked like matchsticks in the stunted forest below. The drought has dried out the meadow; this area would normally be a swamp. We make do with cold food and slip into our sleeping bags. In the night, a bull elk bugles.

At early light, I poke my head out of my shelter. Larry is already packing up below sunlit cliffs. Chuck is up on the grassy ledges above the lake, looking for grizzly sign.

We find a trace of trail leading north. All evidence of human traffic fades as we walk across the broad basin, following elk and deer tracks. Compared to the steep, glacial topography of the north-facing cirques, this mountainside is gentle. But then the wildlife track disappears in a hillside of slide alder, which entangles us for an hour. Finally, we reach a tiny creek. Our topo map shows that it leads up past a lake to a narrow pass that will drop us into the Oldman Creek drainage.

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