The Truth About Bears: The Mystery

Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez
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Grizzlies vanished from North Cascades National Park five decades ago. Or did they? Our scout joins the search for Washington's elusive mountain ghosts. By Ted Alvarez

Illustration by Andy Potts

We run into a bear at the end of our first day looking for grizzlies in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind: a runty black, not much bigger than a large Rottweiler, that ambles past our camp at Copper Creek. Probably a few thousand calories short of its daily huckleberry haul, it ignores us without so much as a glance before leaving a splat of half-digested mixed-berry casserole on the trail.

Glossy black fur, Roman nose, big ears: From 30 yards away, there’s no way I’d mistake it for its larger cousin, but it still feels like a good omen. As the bear gains distance in the dimming twilight, it mixes with its own shadow, inflating in my sight as it noses through an electric-green huckleberry understory and past dense trunks of silver fir. It’s easy to believe that if we’re lucky enough to find a grizzly out here, it might look a lot like this. From now on, every movement—a jiggling twig, a fleeting shadow—catches my eye as a potential sign of the Griz.

My odds of seeing one hover only slightly above my chances of high-fiving Sasquatch. Nobody really knows exactly how many isolated grizzlies hide in the tangle of mile-deep river canyons, old-growth forests, city-size glaciers, dragon-tail ridges, and tilted heather meadows that knot together the greater North Cascades ecosystem. It’s a border-straddling wilderness stronghold that’s bigger than Maryland. Since a hunter shot the last grizzly bear here—in Fisher Creek Basin in 1967—the evidence supporting their existence has been largely the same as that supporting Bigfoot’s: split-second glimpses from a distance, secondhand accounts, and errant footprints leading toward cryptozoological myth. Without any physical or photographic evidence, hopeful biologists and conservationists subsisted on a slow trickle of dubious sightings, sometimes several years apart. A 14-year drought after 1996 convinced many that the Cascades grizzly was nothing but a legend.

But then came the miracle photo: In October 2010, a hiker snapped a shot of a fat, healthy grizzly near Cascade Pass, too far south to be a Canadian bear on a work visa. It was the first confirmed photo of a live grizzly in the North Cascades in almost 50 years: a Loch Ness-caliber money shot.

The photo dropped a month after I moved to Seattle, and the sheer wonder of it floored me like images from a Mars rover landing: grizzlies! A mere two-and-a-half hours from a major metropolitan area, closer than anywhere else in the country! Two years later, I’m still hopped up on possibility—and so is Bill Gaines, an independent wildlife ecologist and U.S. Forest Service veteran. He serves as a principal investigator for the Cascade Carnivore Connectivity Project, a joint effort between academia and government aimed at mapping how carnivores move and breed between ecosystems, and how roads affect their conservation and recovery. The photo poured gasoline on the group’s most ambitious project yet: a three-year survey funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service targeted at determining the status of the grizzly population and its potential recovery. The USFWS has a mandate to support recovery efforts for every endangered species—but it can’t even make baby steps until biologists know how many animals they’re dealing with, and thus how best to proceed. For Cascade grizzlies, that number is still a blank.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” says Gaines. “That photo was pretty exciting. But it’s like looking for a moving needle in a haystack. Three haystacks, actually—there’s a lot of luck involved.”

He and others have been searching for grizzlies here since the late 1980s. They believe Cascade grizzlies should be a wildlife conservation cause célèbre, like Yellowstone’s wolves in the 1990s. While grizzly populations boom in other Lower 48 recovery zones, Cascades grizzlies barely hang on, despite having access to arguably the best habitat. We pushed bears so deep into the wild that they backed into a genetic bottleneck, where fragmented populations face grim prospects for breeding, or even finding each other.
And yet they survive. Biologists believe as many as 20 grizzlies persist in Washington’s Cascades, though pessimists (realists?) would peg that number closer to five. Another 20 or so live immediately north of the border, and their ranges overlap. Rather than reintroduce the species, bear biologists have the rare opportunity to preserve and extend an original grizzly genetic line that reaches back millennia. A romantic might even say restoring bears to their full might here, in one of the final spaces we’ve left for them, goes a little way toward atoning for centuries of persecution.

A romantic would be disheartened by the progress so far. In two years of searching, Gaines has failed to turn up so much as a grizzly eyelash. But where past surveys featured a mix of road- and trail-accessed sites, this third and final season, Gaines’s research team has refined its focus; they’re boring into the trackless, inaccessible heart of the park on foot, research equipment stowed in hulking packs. I join Gaines and two of his colleagues for their final trip of the project: a 50-mile push up and over Hannegan Pass, down into the Chilliwack River basin, and up to basecamp on obscure Easy Ridge via little-used climbers’ paths. From there, we’ll abandon even the semblance of trails for interminable bushwhacks across sketchy slopes until we drop off the edge of the world. It’s the last place a human should be, and therefore the perfect place to find our ghost grizzly.

Happy coincidence: Prime grizzly habitat doubles as Valhalla for backpackers. We cross teal rivers, wind around 200-foot-high firs, and traverse countless meadows bloodied with turning blueberry. At least, I think they’re blueberries.

“It’s all Vaccinium,” explains Kristen Richardson, a 29-year-old grad student. She’s referring to the umbrella genus for the seven species of berry that form the staple of any Cascade bear’s diet. With a giant smile, ruddy cheeks, and a big braying laugh, the blonde defies my expectations of a wildlife scientist by swearing like an off-duty Marine and sneaking off for regular smoke breaks.

In fact, this entire crew is more Indiana Jones than Nutty Professor. Compact and wiry, Aja Woodrow, 34, acts as our advance scout, pole vaulting like a mountain goat over boulders and singing “Call Me Maybe” as he bounces up the slope. An ornithologist by training, he honed his superhuman ability to identify bird calls on extended research trips in Costa Rica, China, and Ecuador.

Gaines, 51, is tall and lean, with kind blue eyes and an eagle nose. Behind a casual “aw, shucks” bearing lies expedition experience ripped from a Hemingway travelogue. While gathered around the Jetboil, his teammates prod him into talking about the time he won a grant for a 1994 journey to be the first to penetrate Pakistan’s northern Karakoram Range on skis in search of rare carnivores. He quietly relays a tale filled with 19,000-foot passes, avalanche near-misses, and snow leopards wandering into camp—all with zero pretension, the way your bro might talk about a weekend hut trip: “It was pretty neat.” Together, my campmates serve as a walking, talking, very entertaining field guide. They make epic biodiversity leap to life: Formerly drab songbirds like the pine siskin become continent-crossing heroes; we marvel at long-lived frog tadpoles that scatter in clear pools. “They’ll spend years in the water before they metamorphose,” says Woodrow.

I soak it all in—when I can keep up. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life logging big trail miles, but the eggheads leave me in the dust. We motor up a faint brown ribbon, a steep, overgrown suggestion of a path, and I’m on afterburners just to keep Gaines and his giraffe strides from disappearing behind the next switchback. None of this should surprise me: All summer the survey crew spends the workweek racking up mileage and elevation gains and losses that would shame the burliest mountain guide. Plus, they lack the advantages of trails or even established routes. They’re hardened by going where the animals go, whether it’s a brush-choked drainage or a hanging valley walled off on three sides by cliffs and scree.

Once out here, you don’t really find the bears; they find you. A month ago, the team deployed six corrals in the Easy Ridge “hex”—a 25,000-acre designation meant to roughly approximate a female grizzly bear’s home range. Each room-size corral consists of a ring of barbed wire tied to trees at about bear-chest height, with a motion-triggered camera strategically placed to capture the whole zone. In the middle lies the bait pile: a mound of branches, bark, and sticks seasoned liberally with a noxious slurry bears find irresistible. It’s made from fish parts, cow blood, and secret ingredients (like fruit and licorice), all left to ferment over the winter in a 55-gallon drum. “It’s like cologne to bears,” says Woodrow. “On camera, we catch them really rolling around in it.” When bruins lumber into the zone, they have to step over or shimmy under the wire, where the barbs yank out a tuft of hair for future DNA testing.

The corrals attract more than bears: Each season, photos document wolves, pine martens, lynx, weasels, cougars, and even wolverines dropping in for a sniff. Viewed in quick succession, it looks like a stinky wildlife kegger.

This year’s conditions boost our hopes of getting lucky on this last-ditch outing. In late fall, bears desperate to build up fat reserves enter an all-out gorgefest known as hyperphagia. During this phase, an adult grizzly requires up to 30,000 calories a day—equivalent to 52 Big Macs, or 71,428 berries. But a long, dry summer and fall busted the berry crop, so bears will range farther and wider to fill up—hopefully right into the team’s odiferous traps.

Historically, grizzlies crowded the North Cascades: The Hudson’s Bay Company shipped 3,788 hides from the region between 1827 and 1859. As the Northwest boomed, human pressure pushed the bears away from salmon streams and deeper into the mountains. Even there, grizzlies’ perpetual status as a dangerous bane of ranchers led to unregulated hunting that wiped out the Cascades’ core population of grizzlies by the late 1960s. North Cascades earned national park status in 1968, one year after the Fisher Creek grizzly was killed, and grizzlies earned a spot on the Endangered Species list in 1975. But by then, Cascades grizzlies had already faded to shadows.

Without competition from grizzlies, black bears have thrived here and elsewhere (see maps, page 56), but even so, there’s plenty of food left at the table. Gaines and other bear biologists think the productive landscape of the North Cascades could support as many as 400 grizzlies.

They’ll need human help to reach such density, but other recovery efforts have been successful against long odds. “You get down to certain numbers with limited genetic diversity, and you wonder, Is it too late?” says Scott Fitkin, a Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who’s been at the front lines of bear research and recovery since 1989. “But there have been subpopulations in other ecosystems on the Canadian side of the line that rebounded from one or two females with a little help from natural immigration.”

And grizzlies have a well-documented history of exploiting wilderness nooks and crannies for decades, fooling us into thinking they’ve vanished for good, only to explode unexpectedly out of some wild redoubt. In 1979, 27 years after the “last” grizzly was killed in Colorado, a bow-hunting guide ran into a 400-pound sow. Its pelt and skeleton hang in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

An expanded grizzly presence in the North Cascades would be worth more than camera ops for backpackers. As a keystone predator, grizzlies would affect the overall ecosystem in profound ways. We know the benefits, thanks to successful recovery efforts in the greater Yellowstone and Glacier regions, where about 600 and 950 grizzlies live, respectively.

Grizzlies dig for roots, for example, and research in Montana shows meadows that they’ve rototilled are more productive—it actually affects soil chemistry. Where salmon are present, grizzlies drag carcasses inland, which fertilizes the landscape. In Yellowstone, grizzlies prey on young elk; that has led to a restoration of creekside, low-branch trees and other vegetation that supports migratory songbirds.

If the efforts to restore two species—grizzlies and fishers—are successful, the North Cascades will support the full suite of carnivores that existed in pre-Columbian times. Their presence, by extension, will enhance the biotas—all the natural life systems in the park.

Of course, restoring grizzlies does more than improve the quality of dirt we hike on. It also restores a kind of wildness that can’t exist without them. The Olympics and Cascades each offer similar gifts: head-spinning biodiversity, toothy peaks, and lonely meadows if you know where to look. But when I’m in the Cascades, equivalent ridges etch sharper lines and a familiar green landscape glows with a menace I find intoxicating. Everything changes with the possibility, however remote, that I just missed an old male grizzly digging up plants around the bend, or that a sow and two cubs padded through camp while I slept. As bear researcher Chris Servheen told me, bears breed fear, and fear breeds humility—a humility that makes our wilderness memories burn brighter.

To our delight and surprise, mid-October feels more like August. It’s warmer than 60°F, and our only autumnal cues come from the broad washes of crimsonVaccinium, flame-orange mountain ash, purple maple, and yellow willow that blend and pour down the mountainside like sessile lava flows. From our vantage on Easy Ridge, the wicked black spike of Mt. Shuksan juts from a thick glacial cloak against a canvas of perfect blue.

Our first two corrals are nestled in coniferous islands that cling barnacle-like to those mountain flanks; we skate down a 30-degree slope of steep mountain heather to reach them. It’s not easy, and I can only imagine the grueling work of setup, when the crew had to reach these same spots hunched under 65-pound packs loaded with 200-foot coils of barbed wire, cameras, extra batteries, and as much as 28 pounds of finely aged bear bait. I smell the corral before I see it, choking on a heady whiff of pungent fish rot.

On average, 70 percent of corrals get snags of hair, but after two, we’re batting 1.000. The second has 17 samples, one of which is a knot of brown-blond fur with silvered tips that makes everyone’s pulse jump.
Woodrow tucks it into a barcoded manila envelope, then sterilizes the pliers with a lighter before moving on to the next tuft of fur.

“My theory is: Black until proven grizzly,” Gaines says. “And it’s bleached from the sun. But that’s very interesting. It’s looking pretty grizzled.” The researchers will get a first crack at identifying the owner after the trek, when they check the camera’s memory cards on a laptop stowed back at the trailhead. The photos will help determine which hair samples get sent to the lab for DNA confirmation.

“Unfortunately, it’s not like CSI,” says Gaines. “We won’t get DNA results back until spring.”

Gaines and team remove all traces of the corral for packing out, and we cruise up white granite ramps to make basecamp atop Easy Ridge, pausing only to tank up at a trickling snowfield. Gaines, who has spent his summers since high school lost in these tumbling ranges, promised the finest views in the park, but he undersold the vista. We pitch our tents on a thin spine of tundra and stone, and spin like dreidels trying to catch photos of alpenglow in nearly all directions. Northward, shark fins cut through a white, green, and blue sea toward Canada. To the west, the upturned spade of Mt. Baker goes apricot behind Shuksan; east, the apropos bear ears of Whatcom Peak lean out in front of the massive aqua Challenger Glacier. South, the sheer walls of the wild Mineral Creek basin fade into featureless indigo. We’ll head there tomorrow on a sunup-to-sunset tour of the final four corrals.

In the morning, I get just 200 yards before learning that the previous day was only a warmup. Our off-trail path to Mineral Creek basin looks bad enough on paper, but the squinched contour lines hide canted boulderfields, pants-ripping thickets of scrubby firs, and steep chutes carpeted with mountain heather. As I descend, I learn to make liberal use of what Richardson calls the VBS (vegetative belay system), whereby a fistful of slick needles and chopstick branches connected to a shallow root system prevents a 1,000-foot endo of doom. Just as I get comfortable, we run into a 60-degree pit to nowhere, and my Elvis leg kicks in. Gaines sets an anchor on a tree trunk, and when it’s my turn, I make a Looney Tunes rappel through crotch-thwacking branches and rotten ledges crusted in lichen. I quickly determine that mats of fir needles have a coefficient of friction roughly matching that of a banana peel—something they never teach you in climbing school. Two more of these, and we’re at an unnamed area Gaines calls Mineral Pass. It’s a soul-quieting place, an oasis of trees and meadows only a few football fields wide, all of it wedged like a Tetris block between sheer rock walls. This is one of the wildest places in the Lower 48, and you can feel the bears here even if you can’t see them.

“It’s possible nobody visited this spot before us,” Gaines says.

We collect kinked tangles of dark bear hair from two more corrals, following a small creek into an empty, U-shaped valley lit up with the commingling colors of summer and fall: Remnant asters and columbine sprout in between reddening groundcover. Mineral Creek pours over a cliff into the Baker River watershed, perhaps the most remote area of the wilderness, and the one place Gaines and team can’t seem to reach. On the deploy trip, Woodrow and Gaines skirted through cliff bands trying to find a way down, only to get funneled into a class 5 free climb on broken stone next to a waterfall. But with light fading, weather failing, and thousands of feet of 45-degree VBSing ahead, Gaines let it go. “It was so tough to get to that we decided if there’s a bear in there, it deserves to be left alone,” he says.

After scrambling 2,000 feet back out of the drainage, we wind past two placid tarns and round the backside of Easy Ridge to reach the final corral—the last hope for finding a grizzly this year. Located right at treeline, the sky island of trees overlooks the split veins of the hyper-wild Baker River and Picket Creek watersheds, each of them several days from any trail. The thickly forested basins peel back to reveal the Picket Range, a ripsaw ridge of black gneiss spires with names like Terror, Fury, and Phantom. Glaciers fill the crevices between like food caught in the teeth of some wild beast.

And this corral’s loaded with fur, too: We’re six for six. Woodrow snaps a photo as Gaines pulls the last strand of hair for the project; he feigns misting up, and in between the smiles, I think I spy real moisture. Richardson is so absorbed in the meticulous collecting of samples she doesn’t notice the punch-you-in-the-face view until takedown.

“You know, this is a bit bittersweet, a bit melancholy,” Gaines says as he packs the last envelope. “But whether we get a grizzly or not, this is important. When we’re done, we’ll have one of the largest datasets of black bear DNA anywhere, and learning about landscape connectivity matters for them, too—for all carnivores. We can learn so much about bear movements, how they’re related, how to protect them going forward.” During the three-year project, the cameras also caught fleeting glimpses of wolves and wolverines expanding beyond their known territories, plus a Canadian lynx yards from crossing the Cascade crest—where they’ve never been detected before. Biologists all over the world will pore over this data for decades.

To celebrate survey’s end, we march 800 feet up a hump of tundra to summit 6,615-foot Easy Peak, a king’s seat with a 360-degree view of the jagged heart of the most rugged wilderness in the Lower 48. The summit had a fire lookout until the 1960s, but all that remains is a rusted stool frame with a flat stone set atop it for a seat. We each take a turn to sit alone and let our minds disappear into the endless zigzag horizon.

Gazing across the snaking valleys, I can’t help wondering where that last tribe of grizzlies hides. But I’m somehow content simply knowing that they’re probably eating, snuffling, and preparing to den where they always have, far from human eyes.

We all spend a long time gazing from the throne, but Gaines stays the longest. Finally, he says, “They’re out there.”

Watch Video From the Field:

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Former BACKPACKER associate editor Ted Alvarez (@tedster) is managing editor at grist.org.
Editor’s note The 2012 survey’s motion-sensor cameras didn’t capture any grizzlies at most of the team’s bear corrals (including the one with the promising blond fur). However, the cameras malfunctioned at two of the more promising sites, so results won’t be known until DNA testing is completed in the spring. Regardless, there’s good news for the ghost bears. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee met shortly after Gaines’s final trek, and all parties agreed to move forward with the next step toward grizzly bear recovery: a multi-year Environmental Impact Study, essentially a long-term road map for reaching a healthy grizzly population in the North Cascades.