Experienced woodsmen crisscrossing the backcountry west of the Bitterroots swear they’ve seen them or their enormous tracks. Forgotten documents unearthed from government files label the sightings as “credible” and “verified.” Still other records have been mysteriously deleted from computer databases, and agency scientists now deny the validity of the sightings.
No it’s not some lunatic fringe quest for Bigfoot, best relegated to late-night television. It’s the very serious search for another legendary denizen of the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem. This quite real flesh-and-blood animal is known to science as Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly bear. Government bear biologists say they’ve spent their entire careers hoping in vain to see a griz in the Bitterroots. The last verified grizzly sighting, they claim, was in 1946. But for some wilderness advocates, the questions surrounding proof of the Great Bear’s presence in the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states smack of mismanagement and scientific closed-mindedness.
The Great Grizzly Search
Frustrated by a perceived lack of governmental effort looking for grizzly in the region, activists and independent bear researchers have launched the “Great Grizzly Search” in hopes of collecting and validating new sightings that could put an end to the claims that there are no grizzly bears left in the Bitterroots. Collaborators include such advocacy groups as Wilderness Watch, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club. Research organizations backing the project are the Great Bear Foundation and the Craighead Wildlife-Wilderness Institute.
At the center of the controversy is the plan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for grizzly bear recovery in north-central Idaho. Getting griz back into the area as quickly as possible with the least political opposition is the agency’s stated goal. To that end, it has proposed importing an “experimental, nonessential” population into the Bitterroots. “Experimental” means that the animals must be completely separated from other natural populations. “Nonessential” means that if the animals die or are killed, their loss won’t push the species further toward extinction. This designation affords a lower level of protection to the introduced animals, allowing wider leeway for dealing with any bears that may be later deemed trouble-makers. It also mandates fewer restrictions on activities that might intrude on bear habitat.
Conservation groups including the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife crafted this approach in alliance with Idaho’s forest products industry. They view the plan, known as the ROOTS proposal, as a compromise that brings bears back while keeping small-town economies alive by allowing logging to continue.
But the sponsors of the Great Grizzly Search view the plan as a bargain with the devil. They want to see roads closed and vegetation restored that would allow natural grizzly immigration from the Cabinet Mountains to the north. Their plan, the so-called “Conservation Biology Alternative,” maintains that habitat is crucial for grizzlies to thrive in the long run. Any bears that might move in from other areas retain the highest level of protection. Researcher Charles Jonkel of the Great Bear Foundation has advocated this approach to grizzly recovery for over 20 years. In fact in the 1980s, a radio-collared bear came from the north and crossed I-90—which was supposed to be an absolute barrier to grizzly—several times.
The ROOTS proposal was included verbatim in the governments’ draft of an Environmental Impact Statement on grizzly recovery, says Mike Bader of Alliance for the Wild Rockies. However, the Conservation Biology Alternative was re-written by USFWS to use the same bear relocation plan as ROOTS, but without the experimental, nonessential population loophole.
The problem is that experimental/nonessential populations aren’t allowed to be added on top of an indigenous group of animals. If there are already more than a handful of transient grizzlies wandering the inner reaches of the recovery area, it might be illegal to bring in more bears, especially if the region turns out to be connected to the Cabinet Mountains. That’s why, sitting at the center of the controversy, is the debate over the existence of griz in the Bitterroots. Now the question is, who’s right, and how can we know for sure?
The Griz Files
Although the process is supposed to be guided by science, the potted version of the scientific method you learned in school doesn’t help much when not everyone can agree on the validity of the evidence or even what counts as evidence. With regard to the Great Grizzly Search, the most vigorous debate revolves around what can be considered a true-blue grizzly sighting.
Larry Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot leafs through a stack of documents his group collected from the Forest Service through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Handwritten sheets, e-mail-printouts, internal memos and various reports list dozens of sightings by hunters, loggers, and agency staff from the 1960s to the present. Much of it seems to be anecdotal information, but its sheer volume, he suggests, should be worth something. “What does it take for agencies to admit it’s been documented?” he asks.
A smattering of the stories gives the flavor of a typical incident: A 1977 letter from a Forest Service biologist to the University of Montana Wilderness Institute recounts the sighting of a female with two cubs—significant because they imply a reproducing population—in the Great Burn area of the Clearwater National Forest in 1975. A large bear that “just didn’t look right for a black bear” stood on the road in front of a fisherman’s truck in 1980, then “was gone in two jumps.” In 1989 hunters saw distinctive tracks with the claws far away from the toe pads, a signature of the griz. In 1992 a logger on his way home from work thought he saw a grizzly cross Highway 12 near Syringa, Idaho.
Other reports from the old files are much more detailed. In the middle of the afternoon of Aug. 30, 1980, Idaho Fish and Game Officer Gene Eastman was inspecting a hunting camp in the Clearwater National Forest. As he rode along a half-mile stretch of trail, Eastman counted more than 100 overturned rocks, including many large slabs easily weighing several hundred pounds. Then his horse noticed the bear less than 50 yards away. Eastman watched it for over five minutes, including through his binoculars. The animal’s shoulder hump, dished face and silver-tipped fur were plainly visible. Eastman’s written report concludes, “This bear never ran and he had a smooth grizzly-like shuffle rather than the typical black bear walk, which is more up and down. ... I would rate this sighting as 100 percent reliable.” Eastman photographed the bear, but without a telephoto lens; “it was only a little dot” in the resulting slide, Eastman recalls.
Eastman patrolled the Clearwater from 1973 to 1993 and gained a reputation for taking the grizzly sightings more seriously than other agency officials. “Everybody would send their sightings to Gene because they knew he wouldn’t laugh,” says Steve Nadeau, the wildlife biologist now in charge of grizzlies for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The agency takes the position that “sportsmen don’t know diddly squat,” Eastman says. “If you don’t have a Ph.D., if you don’t have photo or a dead carcass, they won’t believe you.” In his own experience growing up in Idaho and working in the woods for two decades, he says, “I’ve talked to lots of intelligent hunters.” He has plotted nearly 60 sightings over the years, mostly in the Kelly Creek drainage of the Clearwater National Forest. Sightings include one by a taxidermist who saw a standing griz and got a good look at its “long, ivory claws.” A boar griz “as big as a Volkswagen” walked right under one hunter’s tree stand, and was seen in the company of a female at least once. And Eastman believes that there is “definitely” a breeding population in the area given that outfitter’s reports of a sow and cubs.
Advocates of the Conservation Biology Alternative point to an even more recent pair of sightings in the proposed Great Burn Wilderness as a demonstration of the lack of official willingness to acknowledge the presence of grizzlies south of the Clark Fork River.
According to one of the memos obtained from the FOIA request, in early June 1998, Dean Solheim, a packer for the Ninemile Ranger District, saw a bear with a “prominent hump ... and a dish-faced profile” from about 150 yards off. Less than 10 days later, a Forest Service staffer named Mark Pengelly saw a large, “extremely clear bear track” with projecting claws about two miles from the visual sighting. Pengelly judged it to be a large hind footprint. In forwarding the reports to the Regional Forester, wildlife biologist Mike Hillis called both men “experienced woodsmen [who] can be considered objective observers.”
But Hillis didn’t send the sightings on until October of last year, long after anyone could have gone back to the area to photograph the track or look for further evidence such as hair or scat. In explaining the delay, Hillis says that “an individual bear doesn’t mean anything. I’ve always contended that such sightings aren’t significant.”
Chris Servheen, the USFWS grizzly recovery coordinator, never saw the Hillis report until it was brought to his attention this fall by the sponsors of the Great Grizzly Search. Although he calls the delay “a bit disturbing,” Servheen ultimately dismisses both reports. The first sighting, he says, was from “a long ways off.” In the second case, Servheen says the track couldn’t have been a hind foot because the reported size of eight inches wide by nine inches long is too big. He thinks the bear walked in its own tracks, enlarging and distorting them. “The combination of front and back foot corrupts the sighting altogether. He [Pengelly] didn’t know what he was seeing.” Nonetheless Servheen says, “we’re planning to look harder in this area” next spring.
Pengelly, whose father was a noted University of Montana wildlife biologist, defends his observation. “There ain’t a black bear in the state the size of that track,” he says. As a hunting guide east of the Divide near Wolf Creek, Mont., Pengelly has trailed both resident griz and black bears in that area for 16 years. The track he saw last year in the Great Burn wasn’t curved like a black bear’s. “When I got back to the ranger station, they said, ‘Draw a diagram.’ I just laid a pencil down and drew a line through” the toes of the track—one way of identifying a griz.
“It makes you wonder if employees of these Federal agencies involved aren’t viewed as credible observers, then who is?” asks Bader.
Although eye witness descriptions satisfied naturalists and biologists for decades, Servheen now demands more tangible proof: a photograph of an animal that several bear experts can independently identify as a grizzly; a plaster cast of a footprint with the correct characteristics; a hair sample that can be DNA fingerprinted. Servheen acknowledges the difficulties in establishing conclusive evidence one way or the other: “We can never say that there aren’t bears in there any more than we can say there are aliens.”
Mike Bader takes offense at the implication that the Great Grizzly Search is akin to UFO conspiracy theories. He feels that the standards have been made more stringent than in the past or than for other areas where the presence of grizzlies is less controversial. “I’m convinced there are at least a few bears in the area, whether they’re a remnant from the past or recent immigrants from the Cabinets or the Ninemile area,” he says.
“For whatever reason,” Campbell adds, “they [the Forest Service and USFWS] aren’t being diligent to follow up on these. Now a diligent effort is going to have to come from citizens.”
This is why the Great Grizzly Search is distributing pocket-sized observation cards that hunters and hikers can carry with them and use to note relevant details of any bear encounter—black or griz—they have while in the Bitterroot backcountry. Completed cards can be mailed to a special address and will be analyzed for their information. “This provides an outlet for people to report sightings,” Bader says. “Outfitters have seen bears and report them, but state and federal authorities don’t believe them. They’re frustrated.”
If the outfitters are frustrated, the government bear biologists are tired of chasing tenuous leads and vague stories. Those piles of reports that tantalize backers of the Great Grizzly Search are just so many dead ends to field biologists like Dan Davis of the Clearwater National Forest.
Davis recalls one report in the 1980s that seemed quite promising. A hunter had seen a bear feeding on a carcass in an avalanche chute and even decided not to shoot it because he was convinced it was a grizzly. An observer sent out with a spotting scope watched the site for three weeks and saw only black bears return to the carcass.
A few years ago, one of Davis’ hunter friends was tracking an elk he’d shot when the man saw a huge track in the snow. Excited by the possibility it might be a grizzly track, he covered it with a black plastic garbage bag. The hunter heard growling in the brush and left his elk behind. When he and Davis returned the next day “at oh-dark-thirty” with plaster to cast the track, the black plastic had absorbed enough heat to melt out the precious footprint underneath.
Steve Nadeau of the Idaho Fish and Game Department began his career in the 1970s as a graduate student under none other than the grand master of Montana grizzlies, Charles Jonkel. When Nadeau was stationed on the Powell Ranger District in the 1980s, he was “all fired up about finally locating one of those damn grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Mountains.” But as he put more and more miles on his saddle and the years have passed without seeing one, he’s become more skeptical.
A 1989-1991 study using cameras tripped by infrared sensors photographed hundreds of bears—all black bears. “I’ve kind of gone over to the other side,” Nadeau says with resignation. The cameras “were in the wrong place at the wrong time of year” to capture griz on film, says Gene Eastman, the retired Idaho Fish and Game officer. According to Eastman, the camera set-ups needed to be up higher on the mountaintops and earlier in the spring during the green-up. Grizzlies are “very secretive,” Eastman emphasizes, so it’s not so surprising that they aren’t seen as frequently as black bears or other big game animals.
Just this last spring, hunters swore they saw griz near Salmon, Idaho. Chris Servheen offered Nadeau all the support he needed to follow up, including a helicopter. Hairs from a rub tree were sent off for DNA analysis—black bear. “These things start to wear on you after a while and you start asking questions of the observer,” Nadeau says. He welcomes the extra efforts of the Great Grizzly Search to verify sightings. “I welcome all the fresh legs out there, because mine are getting worn out.”
Bear ID 101
One thing just about all bear watchers can agree on is that a grizzly can be fiendishly difficult to identify in the field. To make the point, Wayne Kasworm, bear biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service likes to administer a little test.
On this particular occasion, Kasworm is not helping hunters brush up on their bear identification skills. This crowd is a lot more friendly to bears than it is to him. The room is full of independent bear researchers and wilderness advocates who wonder whether government agencies are doing enough to be sure grizzlies aren’t already roaming the Bitterroots before transplanting bears to repopulate the region.
The slide carousel advances and a large, furry creature looms on the screen, walking toward me, its head down. “Grizzly bear or black bear?” Kasworm asks. Noting its massive head, small round ears and long front claws, I mark “G” for “grizzly” on my paper. Kasworm shows the next slide and repeats his question. This one is far away and indistinct. Unwilling to commit, I put a question mark on my answer sheet.
After showing 15 photos in rapid succession, Kasworm reveals the identities of the mystery bears. I only get seven right and mistake two griz for black bears. If that seems like a lousy score, Kasworm says that even seasoned bear hunters usually get four or five wrong when they take this test. What’s more, most hunters are sure enough that if they were looking through their rifle scopes, they would shoot two or three of the grizzlies they think are black bears.
Although there are obvious differences between grizzly bears and black bears when placed side by side, that’s not how we see them outside of a zoo or a picturebook. Color is the least-reliable characteristic. In Lincoln County, fully a third of the black bears are brown enough to look like a grizzly on casual inspection. Size is just as unreliable—a big black bear can easily fill the bed of a pickup truck, says Steve Nadeau. Grizzlies are supposed to have a prominent shoulder hump that black bears lack. But any bear hunching down may look like it has a hump.
A lesser-known and more distinctive feature is the grizzly’s short, rounded ears compared to the black bear. Short of DNA analysis of a hair sample, those ears and the way the toes on its front feet form a nearly straight line with very long claws are the best ways to tell a grizzly from a black bear.
Kasworm’s quiz may seem like a simple enough exercise. But some bears can stump seasoned observers in the field. That difficulty sums up the challenges, complexities and contention surrounding the presence, or absence, of grizzly bears in the 26,073 square miles of wild country that make up the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem.
Ghost Bear or Comeback?
Chris Servheen argues that even if there are a few grizzlies already in the Bitterroots, they aren’t a viable breeding population. Adding fresh bears is the only way to establish them, he says. Government biologists feel that they have a legal mandate to restore grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot and don’t want to wait. The Forest Service’s Mike Hillis says, “As a biologist, I’d love to see some bears in the Selway-Bitterroot. Whether or not they have threatened or nonessential status, I don’t care.” Hillis worries that if the Great Grizzly Search partners appeal the reintroduction plan, “they could win the battle, but might lose the war.”
Mike Bader of Alliance for the Wild Rockies emphasizes that the Great Grizzly Search “may come up empty, too. I have my own reputation to maintain as a researcher.” He doesn’t rule out “augmentation” to the existing population—assuming the bears are there now—but the source populations should be able to survive having bears removed, and the new bears should be fully protected.
In the end, everything in western Montana’s great grizzly debate revolves around the twin suns of science and politics. Which means, even if the ROOTS proposal does pass muster, it will take a lot of time for the issue to be resolved. “There’s no need to rush into [reintroduction],” Bader says. “It’s going to take decades to establish a healthy population. We want to maintain their current status and keep habitat in focus.”