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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.

The failure to find solid evidence has everyone puzzled. My instinct is that a few grizzlies are finding their way into the Bitterroot-which explains the sightings-but that the bears don’t stay long. The crucial question is why.

The unnamed pass is no more than a goat trail between two giant towers of metamorphic rock. We slide through sideways and look around. We’re at the top of a 1,500-foot-high bedrock amphitheater looking down into a high alpine basin. Far beyond, through the haze, lies a huge lake-probably Elizabeth. One giant step below, a cascading creek dumps into a smaller turquoise pool.

We look down on a mountain goat sleeping on a ledge and realize there’s no way to drop down the near-vertical face of the cirque. To the west, a series of ledges slope downward. The entire landscape is shaped by a blocky geologic joint pattern; giant rectangular cracks in the white gneiss are filled with subalpine fir and brush. That seems to be the way down.

Using hands and hiking poles, we edge along the run of short cliffs leading northwest, where the route is somewhat less vertical. Patches of snow are lodged in the coarse talus. The ledge I’m walking pinches off, and I stare down a 50-foot cliff. I climb back up and continue contouring. We drop down the cracks and gullies where we can. Eventually, we hit stunted trees, alder, and mountain ash bushes. The descent takes all day.

At the bottom, a creek tumbles from a snow cave. A garden of purple monkey flowers and green moss lines the bank. Extensive sedge fields mark where the summer snow has melted.

My method for looking for grizzlies is more instinctual than technical. Experience tells me that this is a promising spot: Grizzlies are prodigious diggers in areas like this. A black bear might tear up anthills for food, but it doesn’t dig; its bigger cousin plows meadows and benches for roots of lilies and other plants. If you find a series of big holes and trenches, you’ve discovered the work of a grizzly.

But tonight we’re too exhausted to look around. We covered only a handful of raven miles today, but the 2,000 feet up and 1,500 down, scrambling with full pack, felt like 20. Except, seemingly, for Larry, who’s already poking about for sign. Chuck and I hit the final flat and dump our packs, whipped and too tired to eat. Larry fires up his campstove and whistles as he starts in on an elaborate dinner from his freeze-dried stash. Chuck and I consider hiding rocks in his pack.

In the morning, we bask in the oblique autumnal sunlight. We leave our dewy tents up to dry, stash the heavy packs, and go scouting around. When we find the right place, we’ll know it. In the 70s, I began visiting five grizzly bears that showed up in the same places at the same times, year after year. In Yellowstone in April, I watched the Bitter Creek Griz-my name for a huge survivor that hunted yearling bison and the occasional moose-then moved up to Glacier for summer. In late October, I’d go back to Yellowstone to see a sow grizzly that annually dug her den in the same spot.

On the earlier trip into the Bitterroot, we came across a bear bed in the upper reaches of a trail-less drainage. The washbasin-shaped depression was dug next to a large spruce tree. The uprooted sod suggested grizzly claws, and we spent 2 hours with magnifying glasses extracting hair samples. The lab report was inconclusive.

This time, we have other kinds of help. Friends of the Bitterroot sponsors aerial surveys in spring to search for winter bear dens, recognizable from the air as a wagon-wheel of tracks leading to a black hole in the snow. One recent image captured a promising concentration of tracks in a talus slope just north of here.

We spot a tuft of upturned grass and examine it: The clod appears to have been uprooted by the tine of a bull elk. Had this clump of grass been grizzly-dug, the rootlets pulled out by the even tug of 4-inch claws would be like a bad haircut, not cut evenly by a knife-like antler. We also find a half-dozen brick-size rocks that have been rolled. This is bear sign. Grizzlies turn over huge boulders looking for insects. But so, to a lesser extent, do black bears.

A big bird lands in a snag. Soon another adult roosts next to it, and later two fledglings–a peregrine falcon family. I find a stout long bone, possibly a goat or elk, that has been crushed in the jaws of a wolf or bear.

At night, we camp in the meadow below Florence Lake. An old boot print and fire ring reminds us that this valley, though remote, is not unvisited.

The grizzly is the northern Rockies’ defining animal. Its presence radically alters the psychological content of the landscape. An encounter with America’s most dangerous animal is the one adventure still guaranteed to focus your attention on the present. So far, we’ve turned up empty, but I wake up two-thirds through our trip and gird myself with the knowledge that promising griz terrain remains.

From the lake, we head east through stands of slide alder and enormous talus slopes to a tiny pass 1,200 feet above. It’s clear from the absence of game trails that only a few mountain goats have ventured up this passage. We pick our way along black cliffs on steep heather-covered benches. We’re gradually forced out onto angular, footlocker-size scree anchored by sparse alpine plants. Balancing on an unstable river of boulders, we move up along its flanks slowly and summit just as the sun hits its zenith.

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