The Bears Out There 

Wildlife groups renew their efforts to find proof of grizzlies living in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness

There hasn’t been a grizzly bear sighting in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness for more than a half century. Except for all the other sightings since then.

In its November 2000 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on grizzly bear recovery in the Bitterroot ecosystem, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that grizzly bear tracks in the wilderness were last seen in 1946, and that the last verified death of a griz occurred in 1932. Eight environmental groups have disputed the government’s finding and last year launched the great grizzly bear search to prove the Fish and Wildlife Service wrong.

“The feds say there are no griz in the Bitterroot, but we’ve seen a lot of evidence that there are,” says George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, one of the groups involved. They want to find out if those sightings are real, and they’re sending a biologist and volunteers into the wilderness to seek out evidence in the form of hair and scat samples that grizzlies do, in fact, still live in the wilderness.

Why? “There are a couple of reasons,” he says. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to repopulate the Selway-Bitterroot with transplanted grizzly bears is a poor plan that fails to adequately protect the griz or its habitat, says Nickas. If it can be proven that grizzly bears do still roam the more remote areas of the Selway-Bitterroot, “it changes the whole debate.”

Under the current proposal, grizzly bears transplanted to the Selway-Bitterroot would be deemed an “experimental, non-essential” population, which means that marauding bears or “problem” bears could be put to death, and that, generally speaking, human activities in the wilderness could continue unchanged. But if a grizzly is located in the wilderness, practices could be changed significantly to afford greater protection for that bear or bears. That could mean road closures and a prohibition on logging, outfitting and other human activities in the national forest or wilderness.

“It would change a bunch of land management practices,” notes Greg Price, the hired coordinator for all eight groups involved in the search: Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, the Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute, Great Bear Foundation, Big Wild Advocates and the Sierra Club.

The griz search has taken two paths: The collaborative group search is concentrated in the Great Burn wilderness study area west of Missoula; Friends of the Bitterroot focus their search in the Selway-Bitterroot grizzly bear recovery area defined in the EIS. Though both have the same goal, their search methods differ.

Earlier this spring, Price’s 25 or so volunteers underwent a five-hour training session to acquaint themselves with bear signs and habitat, signs like bear-rubbed trees and anthills that have been dug up. And they learned to distinguish grizzlies from black bears.

The volunteers hit the trail the first week in June to set up a “hair station”—a barbed wire corral surrounding an area of about 30 feet in circumference and baited with fish guts and other tasty morsels. The stations were set up in areas where there have been historic grizzly sightings, both documented and undocumented. Bears will be attracted to the bait inside the hair corral, and in their efforts to get at an easy meal will leave some hair behind on the barbed wire. Or so the volunteers hope.

Scat and hair samples from the hair corral will be collected for several months and sent to a lab at the University of Idaho where they will be subjected to DNA testing to determine whether the hair is griz hair.

The samples are handled according to a strict protocol, says Price. They must be immediately frozen and must arrive at the lab frozen. The lab charges $20 to test each sample.

Friends of the Bitterroot, which launched the original search in April 1999, takes a different approach. Larry Campbell, a leader in the organization, scouts the Selway-Bitterroot from the air in a search for bear dens, and when he spots one, takes off on foot, sometimes for days at a time, to examine it closely.

In early May of this year, Campbell and his search partner Dave Stalling, found a den. “We snowshoed in,“ Campbell says. The den “was a small crevice in the rock. We had to go down through eight feet of snow. There was new snow covering everything. I just started digging along a seam of dirty snow and bear hair and it led down to this den.”

Campbell and Stalling went into the den—the bear was gone—and collected a hair sample which will be sent to the lab for DNA testing.

“It was exciting,” Campbell says. “We both had a hell of an adventure.”

Campbell’s sample-collecting method is more direct than Price’s hair corral, but Campbell says his style is a complement to Price’s. “It fits in as a piece of the puzzle, but it differs significantly in its approach.”

Campbell and Price believe this year—the third for the great griz search—could be the year that yields some solid evidence. The first year’s search was casually done, without either the corps of volunteers, a search coordinator or the protocol for handling samples that are in place now. And though the second year—2000—got off to a good start, it quickly fizzled when the fires blazed and the forest shut down to public access. That fall, when the forest was reopened, volunteers did manage to collect a dozen or more samples, which have yet to be tested.

Hopes are high for year three, says Price. The field workers are using research methods taken from Glacier National Park biologists who have studied grizzly population in the park. “We’re emulating to a degree the study they’re doing up there.“ Each lab sample is accompanied by a letter signed by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, giving it credibility and a government stamp of approval, he says. “This is top-notch research,” says Price. “We’re trying to bring all kinds of people into the circle.”

Price is also encouraged by the recent sighting of a grizzly bear in the Nine Mile area. No one knows where that bear came from, he says, noting that it could have wandered into the Nine Mile from the Rattlesnake, the Mission Mountains, or the Bitterroots. “That was absolute proof that [grizzlies] are doing what we thought they were doing”—namely, wandering from habitat to habitat, crossing rivers, highways and private land in the process.

Whether proof of a single bear would lead to any significant changes in land management is a matter of contention, according to Price. He says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t likely to change the course of its recovery plan with evidence of a single male grizzly. The agency wants to see evidence of at least two cub-bearing females before it will concede that there is a reproducing population anywhere where grizzlies are believed non-existent now.

Price says the agency has set the bar too high, and that if a single male is found, the groups would probably meet to strategize ways to pressure the agency for greater habitat and griz protection.

National environmental groups and the timber industry worked together in a strange-bedfellows manner to fashion the politically motivated recovery plan that these eight groups reject as not protective enough, says Nickas.

As far as these groups are concerned, the current grizzly bear recovery plan leaves the bears in a vulnerable position: If grizzlies can’t adapt to human activities in bear country, the bears end up the losers.

Nickas says the public also will have to be brought into the discussion if the search turns up a grizzly. “It changes the nature of the debate over how we recover grizzly bears in that part of the world,” he notes.

But whether grizzly bears still roam the wilderness is yet to be determined. “Who knows?” says Nickas. “I can’t sit here and say 100 percent sure that there are grizzlies there. It’s certainly very, very plausible they’re hanging out in central Idaho in the Bitterroot Range. That’s a huge chunk of country.”

Even if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is right—that grizzlies disappeared from the Selway more than 50 years ago—looking for them is still a wild ride. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Nickas. “People are having a wonderful time.”

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