The thousands of grizzly bears that once roamed these deep lodgepole pine valleys and high alpine lakes, the greatest wilderness in the continental United States, have been officially gone now for nearly 60 years.
A plan to bring the grizzly back to the Bitterroot region died quietly last month when the Bush administration--heeding ranchers and sportsmen who said it "makes about as much sense as reintroducing the polio virus"--put the brakes on the initiative.
That might have been the end of the story were the wilderness a little less wild.
Instead, early in June, a young male bear made his way into the Ninemile Valley, northwest of Missoula, Mont., preying on chickens, scaring dogs and glaring balefully at two women on their front porches. "Looks like a grizzly," resident Shawn Andres told the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks when he called.
"Couldn't be," department biologists said. That was before they saw the tracks. Grizzly tracks. Before Andres showed them the video he'd shot of the bear that left his yard a mess of 30 dead chickens, three dead ducks, a dead goose and a dead peacock. Rich brown fur, pointed nose--a grizzly nose.
State wildlife officials tried repeatedly to relocate the bear or frighten it away. They finally shot the 375-pound grizzly on July 6, but not before it had wandered 30 miles downriver into the edge of the Bitterroot--the very area Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton declined to put grizzlies into.
The incident has provided ammunition to a small group of bear biologists, environmental activists and backwoodsmen who in recent years have begun asking a question that, in these times, bucks conventional wisdom and threatens the status quo of wildlife management in the West: What if there already are grizzly bears in the Bitterroot? What if, somewhere deep in that vast, almost unknowable wilderness, the greatest predator of them all still wanders?
So begins the saga of the Great Grizzly Search, an attempt to prove that the Ninemile Grizzly wasn't the first, or the last, in these mountains. Last month, two dozen volunteers began fanning out into the wilderness, looking for tracks, hair, scat, claw marks--any evidence of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says is a biological impossibility.
Finding grizzlies in the Bitterroot would provide some hope that the isolated pockets of bears in the Rocky Mountain West could connect with each other and survive.
Proof that grizzlies already live in the Bitterroot also could trigger the full regulatory shield of the federal Endangered Species Act. The tenuous migration corridors that presumably allowed the bears to get there--areas where oil and gas development and new subdivisions are threatening to explode--could see new demands for protection.
Which is why Missoula bear biologist Chuck Jonkel and his army of volunteers are spending their summer engaged in what many would consider to be a series of suicidal acts--hauling canisters of fermented blood and fish guts into back country teeming with an estimated 10,000 ordinary black bears--in hopes of luring a 600-pound killer out of the brush.
"The federal government's official position is, 'We have searched for grizzlies, and we found nothing.' But they searched maybe 5% of an area that's 200 miles by 200 miles," says Jonkel as he makes his way along remote Fish Creek on a narrow trail overgrown with huckleberries, gooseberries and blooming columbine.
At the edge of the trail, two huge boulders have been roughly overturned--typically the signature of a grizzly bear rooting for bugs underneath. It could have been a black bear, but what black bear would have been big enough to cast aside chunks of granite as high as a man's knee?
The idea of a bear that can stand 10 feet tall scrounging for ants and potato bugs seems incongruous with the notion of the grizzly as carnivore. Grizzlies in the lush Rocky Mountain summers are more likely to eat berries, grasses, pine nuts, moths and roots than meat, though they will kill the occasional elk calf and feast on winter-kill carcasses.
Still, a grizzly that has lost as much as 150 pounds during hibernation is a 90-pound-a-day eating machine, and it stands at the top of the food chain, capable of disemboweling prey with a single swipe of its 4-inch-long claws.
Brian Huntington, a researcher for the Great Grizzly Search who has spent most of the summers of his life in the woods, doesn't downplay the danger. Huntington gets impatient with those who say there are no perils in this back country.
Look at the elk when they're foraging, he says. There's a rustle in the brush, and all heads look up. Another rustle, and the herd is gone. Huntington has learned to trust the hair on the back of his neck. He feels it rise when he's walking down a trail, and he stops. Don't think it's probably your imagination, he says. It's probably not.
The reason so many people want to see grizzlies in the Bitterroot is a matter of geography and history.
Of the perhaps 100,000 grizzlies that wandered the U.S. from California to the Great Plains in the early 1800s, barely 1,200 are left in the Lower 48.
Those that remain live in isolated pockets: 600 in and around Yellowstone National Park; 400 to 500 on the northern Continental Divide; 30 in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, just to the west; up to 60 bears in northern Idaho's Selkirk Mountains; perhaps five or 10 in the northern Cascades of Washington.
Ultimately, none of these populations is likely to persist if cut off from the others, many biologists say; temporary food shortages and lack of genetic intermingling could doom them.
Yet if you plot these bear pockets on a map, there is a hole in the middle. Much of that void is the 25,000 square-mile Bitterroot ecosystem, the big empty land that stretches almost unbroken from Missoula into central Idaho.
"The Selway Bitterroot is kind of the keystone in the whole ecological arch needed to get to recovery between Yellowstone and Canada," said Louisa Willcox, grizzly bear project coordinator for the Sierra Club in Montana.
Now the unexpected appearance of the grizzly bear in Ninemile, on the edge of the Bitterroot ecosystem, suggests to some that the idea of grizzlies there is not a pipe dream. Indeed, the notion that grizzly bears may make their own way into the Bitterroot--or that perhaps some grizzlies already are there--could turn the present approach to grizzly bear management on its head.
The aborted federal reintroduction plan, by categorizing the transported bears as an "experimental, nonessential population," would have given a citizens management team broad leeway to control grizzlies and remove errant bears. It was a plan designed to help win over ranchers and loggers by guaranteeing that problem bears would be dealt with and large areas of land would not be cordoned off as protected habitat.
The Great Grizzly Search, sponsored largely by the Missoula-based Great Bear Foundation and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and supported by three paid staff members and two dozen volunteers, opposed that plan from the start because it would have allowed less protection for grizzlies that may already be in the Bitterroot.
Chris Servheen, the official in charge of the federal government's grizzly recovery program, has two words for the likelihood that there are grizzlies in the Bitterroot: "extremely low."
"We've looked really hard for bears in there, we've searched the records and followed up on all possible sighting reports, and we've never been able to validate anything," he said. "What they end up being is someone saying, 'I thought I saw a grizzly bear.' And when you come down to, 'Where's the evidence? Do you have a photograph or do you have some tissue?' none of that ever exists."
The Ninemile grizzly did cross into the Bitterroot, he admits. But there is a difference between a sub-adult male ranging into a new territory--males typically roam hundreds of miles from their birthplaces--and a female, which would be crucial to establish any new grizzly bear population in the region. Females most often stake their territory right next to that of their mothers.
Not everyone is so sure.
In 1999, trail crew workers with the U.S. Forest Service found what appeared to be a clear grizzly track on the North Fork of Fish Creek.
And a longtime Ninemile rancher, Ralph Thisted, said he saw a grizzly along with several black bears feeding on a cow carcass on his ranch in the northern Bitterroot about 10 years ago. "I saw it several times. When any of the other bears were on the carcass and that bear came, the other bears would just explode and run off. This one was bigger, and it had that hump. I've lived here a long time, and I know a grizzly bear from a black bear."
The grizzly by its nature is so reclusive, and the Bitterroot is so big, that no one can say for sure, said Troy Merrill, an Idaho wildlife biologist.
"Bears are pretty hard to spot. If they don't want to be seen, they generally aren't," Merrill said. "Particularly in the Bitterroot, those bears were hunted out. So any bears that would have survived in there would have been really wary. They would have been bears that were extremely cautious, stayed way in the back country, and just avoided humans at all costs.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were two or three old wary bears that just kind of lurked about in the hills."
It is a sunny morning in mid-July, and grizzly searchers are erecting a trap to collect bear hair on a mountainside above Straight Creek, deep in the Great Burn wilderness study area.
Huntington and partner Greg Price rely on their tracking skills, scanning towering piles of bear scat, measuring claw marks on the trees. Periodically, Huntington stops at a tree where a bear has scratched itself and painstakingly tweezes hairs from the bark.
"These are the first ones with silver tips I've seen. I mean, the first ones," he says, referring to the grizzly's trademark light-tipped hair (though black bears have been known to sport tips as well).
The main strategy is to erect a series of bear lures around suspected grizzly locations that can be used to collect hair samples, which then can be DNA tested to determine whether they came from black bears or grizzlies.
Carefully, Huntington and Price stretch a line of barbed wire around four trees to form a square, about shoulder-high for a bear. They make a pile of dead wood in the center to absorb the lure. They post warning signs on nearby trees: "CAUTION. Bears may be in the area. Turn around or pass through the area quickly."
Then Huntington opens a plastic canister of a concoction that is sure to draw any grizzly within miles. It is a combination of cow's blood and fish guts, left to sit in 90-degree heat for three weeks. It releases an odor of overwhelming death and decay, and it is hard to imagine what kind of creature would be drawn to such a smell. Huntington pours the mixture on the wood, packs up and moves away as fast and as far as he can.
All the way back to camp, in the darkening afternoon, the group is weighed down with the memory of it. Did the bear come out of the forest looking for blood?
"What I love about this job is I'm continually going places I have no business being and would otherwise never consider going," Huntington said.
"I read Jack Turner, who said that we're living in a world that's not real. It's all genetically altered, and only the wilderness is real. . . . Think of a bonsai tree clinging to the edge of a mountain, just hanging on to the edge of a rock. That was his metaphor. To be that bonsai tree. Cling to life. Not ground yourself where it's easy to be but explore your fears. Live your dreams."
All right, says Servheen, the federal grizzly recovery coordinator. Suppose they find one grizzly bear. And with the Ninemile grizzly's carcass sitting on an autopsy table in Bozeman, there does indeed seem to be evidence of one bear, what does that prove? Nothing.
"I wish these people would use their considerable energy and interest in the conservation of grizzlies to work toward more understanding and support for getting a viable population into that area," Servheen says. "Even if they found one bear in there, one bear does not a population make, let alone a viable population. We need evidence of reproduction. Self-sustainability. One bear does not mean there's a healthy population or there's any future for grizzly bears in this area, and what we're concerned about is the future."
But Jonkel says that's precisely the point. Prove there's a bear in there and someone will have to make sure others have a safe way to get there. Burgeoning subdivisions in the connecting valleys might have to be slowed. Logging in the Centennial Mountains, which could form the connection between Yellowstone grizzlies and a new population in the Bitterroot, might have to be curtailed.
That is what many in Idaho and Montana fear most: the federal government stepping in with a host of new regulations and blaming it on the grizzlies.
"Corridors: Are you talking about creating a grizzly bear superhighway so you can get grizzly bears together and make bear babies? Is that what you're talking about? Because we've already got plenty of bears in the Lower 48," said Mark Snider, spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who filed a lawsuit to block the Clinton administration's reintroduction plan.
In the Ninemile Valley, residents believe they have already seen a second grizzly bear, possibly a sibling to the dead bear. Many don't like the idea that places like Ninemile may be a crucial link between the existing known grizzly population in the Mission Mountains, the Cabinet Mountains and the Bitterroot.
"I've been around grizzlies, and they're one animal that I firmly believe cannot live with human beings. They're just too wild," said David Kreis, who has lived on a 600-acre ranch in the Ninemile all his life.
"They don't have any fear. It's not that they're mean. They wake up in the morning and their goal is to eat, and whatever it takes, they do it. You let them in here, and in the end, it's not only us who will suffer, the bear will suffer, as we've already found out with the one."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Where They Roam
About 1,200 grizzly bears roam the Northern Rockies--a number representing about 1%
of their original population in the Lower 48 states, in an area only 1%-2% of their original range.
A controversial plan to reintroduce grizzlies in the 15-million-acre Bitterroot ecosystem
in Montana and Idaho was shelved by the Interior Department in June.
The Grizzly's Range
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated five recovery areas for grizzlies --3.7 million acres where bears are afforded strict protection against human threats.
Size: Up to 10 feet tall when standing on hind legs; 300-600 pounds
Diet: Whitebark pine seeds, wild berries, roots, fish, army cutworm moths and ungulates.
Nicknames: Brown bear, silvertip
Life cycle: Reproduce slowly, breeding every third year. Mate late spring; hibernate fall through late spring; cubs born during hibernation.
Habits: Solitary, very protective of cubs and food. May act aggressively, especially when surprised.
Can run up to 35 mph.
Up to 30% of body weight is lost while denning.
Range: Sometimes hundreds of square miles to find food before denning for winter.Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee; Defenders of Wildlife; National Wildlife Federation; Sierra Club.
Researched by JULIE SHEER/Los Angeles Times