Stretching from Thompson Falls to British Columbia, the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem sprawls 2,600 square miles, straddling the Idaho panhandle. That's where the U.S. Geological Survey is now hunting for grizzly bear DNA, in order to better understand the population and genetics of area grizzlies. The best non-invasive way to get the endangered bears' DNA is through their hair, naturally rubbed off on trees or caught in lured barbs.
It's the USGS, not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducting the research because, "We're in the business of good science without a stake in the outcome besides good, reliable data," says Kate Kendall, lead investigator of the project.
Kendall was training her 70 staffers in water crossing last Sunday, May 27, in preparation for the summer's work: hiking to over 1,800 locations five times each. They'll check meticulously placed hair traps (scented barbed wire corrals) and rub objects (small barbs at naturally occurring rubbing spots on trees and poles). They'll analyze the captured hair over the next couple of years to obtain population numbers and a detailed family tree.
The ecosystem, one of FWS's six grizzly bear recovery areas, is valuable. "The Forest Service considers it to have the highest ecological integrity of the interior Columbia Basin," says Erik Beever, a research ecologist with the USGS. "It's an important stepping stone for connectivity of broad-ranging species, not just grizzly bears."
To the west is the sparsely populated and mostly roadless panhandle. To the east there's Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and the rest of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, where Kendall undertook a similar DNA survey, completed in 2008. Her research found about 760 grizzlies living there, more than twice what the FWS had estimated.
FWS's current rough estimate is that there are only about 40 grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak. The numbers there have been lower, Kendall says, due to proximity to humans. "Bears here are always closer to the attractants humans tempt them with," she says, often leading to deadly confrontations on roads, train tracks and trails. She says the biggest boost to the population will come from better cohabitation. But she won't know the population they're starting from until her team combs through some hair.