"You’ve got nothing to worry about," noted grizzly bear expert and advocate Dr. Charles Jonkel reassured the crowd, scratching his back, bear-like against a tree in downtown Missoula on a sunny afternoon last Friday. "If you’re not going to make it through the week, you’re far more likely to meet your end in a car than in the woods by a griz. Bears kill about one person every two years in this country. The best I can recall, cars kill about 50,000 people a year."
An attentive group of volunteers for the great griz search seems to appreciate these odds. A citizen-driven campaign to verify the presence of grizzly bears in the local woods, after all, is not the same as joining the PTA or coaching little league. Begun nine months ago by a consortium of local conservation groups led by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the search for the bona fide presence of ursus horribilis puts hikers on the trail in hopes of finding tracks, scat, hair samples or other signs of the endangered bear.
The reasons for the hunt have been well-publicized in local and national media for the past year. Proposals to reintroduce the silver-tipped bear into the greater Salmon-Selway ecosystem have been floated by the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These federal agencies’ preferred alternative is to maintain a few griz as "experimental, non-essential" animals, meaning the status of grizzly bears’ protection under the Endangered Species Act would not apply. What’s worse, according to griz advocate Jonkel, is that any griz already inhabiting the 26,000-square-mile wilderness would also become experimental and non-essential, a demotion that allows timber managers to continue to cut at levels that would not be allowed if viable numbers of the giant bear could be proven.
"There’s plenty of evidence to suggest these agencies have covered up evidence of grizzlies in these areas in the past," says Jonkel, allowing that the Forest Service in particular seems to have become more receptive to efforts to verify griz in recent years. "But no one is following up on reported sightings still, so it’s up to us."
Last weekend’s group of volunteers carpooled to a trailhead in the Great Burn an hour west of Missoula. Jen Nitz, volunteer coordinator for Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Aaron Coffin of Missoula, Matt Holloway of Hamilton, and Gary Macfarlane of Moscow, Idaho, shouldered backpacks and crossed a rickety suspension bridge over Fish Creek, commencing a two-day bear hunt. Armed with plaster of paris, ziploc bags for hair samples, cameras, pocket-sized identification packets, and canisters of bear mace, talk on the trail turned to the inspiration for volunteering for the sake of the griz.
Holloway, speaking in the relaxed drawl of his Mississippi upbringing, says his affinity for bears began at a young age. "Bears were my favorite animal growing up," he recalls. "I finished college and moved here, in part to get to know the country bears live in better." Holloway, a fiction writer, sees the grizzly as having a story of its own to tell. "For the past century or so, we’ve been telling the bear how his story will be, interpreting how and where it could live. We need to meet these creatures on their own terms, to let them write their own story for a while."
Other volunteers concur, speaking of the privilege of encountering a bear in various wild places in the lower 48. Nitz, a native of Chicago, recalls a time a black bear followed her at the tail end of a three-week trek in Sequoia National Park. The curious animal tailed her from 50-75 yards away, sizing up the snack possibilities in Nitz’s foodless pack. She spoke to the bear. "I told him I was walking out, that I was out of food. Just to be safe I told him too that I hadn’t really had a good meal myself in a couple weeks, that I was skinny and wouldn’t provide much nutrition." The bear left her shortly thereafter. "I’ve never been fearful around animals," says Nitz. "Even though I never went camping until I got out of college. I don’t think the bear understood what I was saying, but I do think the talking helped."
Ironically, communication with grizzlies might require more trust in some mysterious way than humans have been able to generate between one another. "I’m not opposed entirely to the idea of re-introducing grizzlies down the road if that’s what it takes to have them here," comments Macfarlane. "But right now there’s no trust between us and the managing agencies. They’re willing to compromise this habitat. I think that no matter what kind of evidence we come up with this summer, [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife will drag their feet kicking and screaming before they admit there’s grizzlies in here."
Locals willing to test this theory by volunteering a weekend in the Great Burn or other locales in the vast wilderness to the west should call the Alliance for the Wild Rockies at 721-5420. Although people from as far away as Germany have already committed to tracking the griz, more volunteers are needed for weekends throughout the summer.