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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.

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There’s smoke and heat in the air. And maybe there’s something more–something I’ve only begun to pick up after many seasons in the wilds.

I’m feeling edgy as we approach timberline, hiking through shrub fields already hounded into brilliant reds and yellows by autumn’s first frosts. The sun sifts through a thin haze that cloaks the lower shoulders of Fenn Mountain, in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In the timbered valleys below, the plumes of half a dozen spot fires rise, the consequence of three consecutive drought years. It’s an unseasonably hot September day, and sweat is pouring off my face.

As nimbly as we can under 50-pound packs, we ease down a narrow trail toward a small creek, brushing away blueberry and mountain ash branches. I walk ahead of my two companions, listening, scenting the breeze, and studying the ground. And then, something in front of me stops me dead. I signal my friends Chuck Irestone and Larry Campbell to join me and point to a faint pattern of smooth imprints leading down the trail. My heart racing, I scan the woods and then cautiously follow the marks, stooping to examine a more distinct track. A tiny ridge separates the pad from four toe prints. The toe line is curved: the unmistakable track of a black bear. We breathe deeply, at once relieved and disappointed.

We’re looking for a grizzly bear. I’ve seen many hundreds of the humpbacked, silver-tipped animals in 35 years of studying them, and I never tire of the electric experience. But seeing one here in the Bitterroot, ground zero in the great modern-day grizzly debate, would be truly special. Finding a grizzly here would change everything about this landscape for years to come.

Are they here or aren’t they? That question has plagued people on both sides of the grizzly conservation wars for more than a decade. We know this much as we head into the mountains: Grizzlies were here, for thousands of years, in huge numbers. The accounts of Lewis and Clark and other early visitors tell us the place was crawling with them. A 1.3-million-acre landscape of cirques, sprawling peaks, and pristine lakes, the Selway-Bitterroot is the third-largest wilderness in the Lower 48. Added to the adjacent 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and surrounding wildlands, the expanse is known as the Bitterroot Ecosystem–a roadless, wild area larger than New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut combined. With its plentiful food sources and massive empty spaces, it’s superlative grizzly habitat.

We also know that settlers hunted grizzlies with ferocity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, shooting and and poisoning them so methodically that in 1932, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded the last official grizzly slaying in the Bitterroot. The last confirmed tracks were spotted in 1946.

Nevertheless, there have been unofficial sightings by hunters, outfitters and guides, hikers and horse users, and

government employees. Credible scientists and conservationists continue to believe–some passionately–that a small remnant griz population still survives deep in this wilderness. In 1998, a forest service packer reported sighting a grizzly at 150 yards in the North Fork of Fish Creek. The bear had both a prominent hump and a dish-shaped face, and its hair was brown with distinctive silver tips. Soon after, another backcountry worker found “an extremely clear bear track” of grizzly proportions and characteristics. Both employees, according to a forest service report, “are experienced woodsmen and can be considered objective observers.” (Shortly thereafter, a black-bear hunter showed up in the same drainage with bear bait, and the alleged griz was never seen again.)

Grizzly recovery in the Mountain West is dependent on bears mounting a comeback in the Selway-Bitterroot. Human populations are booming around the West’s wild spaces, and the more trophy homes that get built, the more bears get sealed into national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. The Yellowstone ecosystem is an island, genetically isolated, meaning that its bear population won’t remain viable without connectivity to grizzlies in Canada. The only practical route is through these mountains. So it’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of the grizzly in the Lower 48 may well lie right here in the Bitterroot.

Conservation groups have been probing these mountains for years, looking for grizzly sign. So far they’ve turned up none. We’re here to look in a few places others haven’t–or couldn’t–and in the process maybe, just maybe, settle this controversy.

We fill our water bottles in tumbling Canteen Creek. My two companions are veterans of the conservation wars in the northern Rockies. Larry heads an organization called Friends of the Bitterroot, and Chuck has lent a hand with past search efforts. I’ve been fascinated with grizzlies since I returned, haunted and numb, from the Vietnam War and headed straight into the wilderness.

Grizzlies gave my life a purpose. In the 1970s, I began hauling a 90-pound backpack loaded down with a movie camera into Yellowstone and Glacier, and for 7 years I spent entire seasons tracking them. I filmed some 250 grizzlies, and in the process learned their behaviors-when they leave their dens, where they travel, what they eat. I saw, too, how much they need undisturbed wilderness. In 1985, I documented sign of what was probably the last Mexican grizzly in an island range of Chihuahua. And in the early ’90s, I led the San Juan Grizzly Search, a 5-year hunt for the last griz in that Colorado range.

Two years ago, we hiked into the Bitterroot’s Boulder Creek drainages north of here to identify the best terrain for finding grizzly sign. From atop a ridge 20 miles away, we spotted it: a collection of basins completely hemmed in by steep cirque walls. It would be challenging to get in there, but it looked like just the kind of place grizzlies would favor-an isolated region where they could browse and dig undisturbed.

On that trip, we discovered what appeared to be a single grizzly track-though we found no further evidence to confirm the find. This time, we’ll bushwhack up and over high passes and into those remote basins. An actual sighting is a long shot; we’re just hoping to see sign, since evidence of grizzly digs in high meadows lasts for years. If we find digs, we should be able to locate a day bed, a shallow depression where a bear sleeps out the heat of the day, and from there, we’ll focus on finding hair for DNA testing.

We begin to climb. A hundred yards up the trail, we cross another set of black-bear tracks and some of the best huckleberry patches I’ve seen in the Lower 48. Buffalo berry and mountain ash grow in abundance, and the wet bottoms are full of cow parsnip and other wild herbs. Brimming with the usual cover of grass and sedge, the root crops of alpine plants, this habitat is a grizzly feast waiting for diners.

The trail contours around a minor summit behind which lie two little tarns called the Cove Lakes. The trail splits here, and in fading light we drop down into the basin and look for a place to camp. A winter avalanche sheered off a broad swath of lakeside trees, which are stacked like matchsticks in the stunted forest below. The drought has dried out the meadow; this area would normally be a swamp. We make do with cold food and slip into our sleeping bags. In the night, a bull elk bugles.

At early light, I poke my head out of my shelter. Larry is already packing up below sunlit cliffs. Chuck is up on the grassy ledges above the lake, looking for grizzly sign.

We find a trace of trail leading north. All evidence of human traffic fades as we walk across the broad basin, following elk and deer tracks. Compared to the steep, glacial topography of the north-facing cirques, this mountainside is gentle. But then the wildlife track disappears in a hillside of slide alder, which entangles us for an hour. Finally, we reach a tiny creek. Our topo map shows that it leads up past a lake to a narrow pass that will drop us into the Oldman Creek drainage.

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.

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.

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.

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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