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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.

Did that happen here in the Bitterroot? Or were bears scared off by all the new activity, including outfitter landing strips and pack trains?

It’s hard to know. Either way, the presence of so many new trails here is not a good thing, because there’s not enough wild bear habitat secure from people with guns up here. Now, as part of any reintroduction plan, conservationists need to convince the forest service to eliminate unauthorized trails and obliterate portions of existing ones. This won’t be easy. Cultural feelings toward grizzlies have not changed much since the pioneer-slaughter days. Idaho’s governor, Dirk Kempthorne, summed up prevailing attitudes when he lobbied to call off the grizzly reintroduction. “I oppose bringing these massive flesh-eating carnivores into Idaho,” he said.

But the stakes are too high to ignore. Like my hiking partners, like many other people, I desperately need that shock of humility I find in places wild enough to sustain grizzlies–and in the knowledge that grizzlies are out there.

It’s a microcosm of our situation throughout this country, where human interests have encroached on something essential that we’re in imminent danger of losing. We have the unique opportunity to make one of our largest mountain strongholds even wilder. It’s something we must do if we want to preserve beyond our time that distinctly American tradition of discovery and exploration. Right now, the West is sliding backward, away from the possibility of the quintessential wildlife adventure-a grizzly bear encounter.

In the meantime, there’s no reason to stop looking for the great bears in the Bitterroots, despite having turned up no new evidence. In the ’70s, I started each season by sitting for days at a time. The snow was too deep to go looking for bears, so I’d set up in a good spot and wait for up to 3 weeks, running my senses repeatedly over the place, finding subtle details. That sort of fortitude will be required here.

But for now, we have a hike to finish. We fold the map and head off into the next drainage, scenting the air, scanning for the tiniest sign of hope in this wild land.

Doug Peacock’s new book, Walking It Off, about war, wilderness, and Ed Abbey, is due out later this year.

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