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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 glass the terrain. To the north, beyond Stanley Butte, lie the drainages we investigated two years ago. Somewhere down there, under a Buick-size slab of coarse talus, we found an opening into a den. The tiny chamber flickered with reflected light, like a seaside grotto. A scat sample we collected also failed to turn up identification, but we suspected black bear. Grizzlies tend to dig dens-near timberline, under trees, on north-facing slopes–at these latitudes. Black bears are more likely to use talus slopes.

From the pass, we descend east into the North and South Link Lakes drainages. Rumor has it an unauthorized trail has been cut in this area and we want to check it out.

We drop down and find spot fires simmering in lower Three Links Creek. To the north lie the Lizard Lakes, a chain of basins perfect for grizzlies in summer and fall. But instead of finding bears, we make a different discovery: a fresh trail extension that isn’t on our map, probably cut by a hunting outfitter, snaking along the crest, directly overlooking these basins. From up there, hunters have clear sightlines into these open bowls. I later find out that hundreds of miles of new trail have been cut here since the last maps were made.

Nearly all participants in the reintroduction debate have long believed that the Bitterroot’s huge core of mountain wilderness was sufficiently secure for grizzly survival–and we began this hike still convinced that was true. Now I’m not so sure.

Hunters aren’t allowed in national parks, but they can shoot elk and black bears anywhere in this wilderness. Gunshots, paradoxically, attract bears. When hunters shoot elk, they leave behind an immense gut pile, which is a strong bear magnet. Though grizzlies innately avoid humans, they’re also drawn to a ready feast, and they begin to associate muzzle blasts with food. From there, it’s a huge temptation for hunters. I’ve followed cases through the years where outfitters in Yellowstone’s surrounding national forests were caught shooting grizzly cubs. They often got away with judicial slaps on the wrist; in some parts of the West, illegal bear killing is practically a socially sanctioned activity.

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