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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.

©Raymond Meeks
Chuck, Larry, and the author trek up out of the Rainbow Lake’s drainage on their second day in the Bitterroot, the toughest terrain still to come.

We climb up the alder-choked gorge to Rainbow Lake. A smoky pall eases over the mountains as the day heats up, and we strip off our sweaty clothes for a swim. A narrow gap shows in the sheer cliffs 600 feet up a steep gully. Getting up there won’t be hard. Getting down will be another matter entirely.

If not for shifting political winds, hikers who work their way deep into the Bitterroot might reasonably expect to find grizzly sign. In 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the Bitterroot “has the best potential for recovery of a healthy population of grizzly bears with minimal impact to humans,” and announced it would relocate five grizzlies there every year for 5 years beginning in 2002.

The snag? The agency planned to categorize the bears as a “nonessential, experimental population.” That classification allowed for a broad range of circumstances under which Bitterroot grizzlies could be killed and their habitat just outside the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness exposed to logging, mining, and road building, which would be forbidden if the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were in force.

I believed–as others did–that a flawed reintroduction plan was better than none at all. But there was a way to improve it: An ESA provision makes it illegal to introduce an experimental population anywhere an existing one has been documented. If conservationists can prove there are bears here, all Bitterroot grizzlies-even imports-would be entitled to the safeguards of a threatened species.

The entire argument became moot when George W. Bush became president. His administration’s first major wildlife decision, in 2001, was to shelve the idea.

The reintroduction plan is in cold storage, awaiting either regime change or someone to find grizzlies in the Bitterroot. To the latter end, eight environmental groups pooled their resources and in 2001 trained volunteers to identify sign and to distinguish evidence of black bears from that of grizzlies. The Great Grizzly Search, as the coalition is sometimes known, has created scent stations at which powerful olfactory attractants such as rotten fish offal are sprinkled around a single strand of barbed wire. From this, researchers have extracted bear hair for DNA analysis. To date, all the samples they’ve tested have belonged to black bears.

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