Into The Bear's Den

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The Bear's Den




Freezing, drizzling rain when we started off at the trailhead, followed by a challenging crossing of a turbulent, spring-swelled creek and a steep, rugged climb to the high country where snow remained deep and avalanche danger extreme. Early May – the worst possible time to head into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but the best time to search for grizzly hair.


A few days earlier, taking a much more leisurely approach by plane, two aerial observers spotted fresh bear tracks high in the backcountry and traced them back to the very place where the bear had popped out of the snow, a furry eruption from a long winter’s nap. It’s just what they were looking for; since grizzlies tend to den higher than black bears, and this den sat at about 7,000 feet, it just could be a grizzly’s. They plotted the spot on a map and took a few photos to assist efforts to locate the den from the ground – if they could find anyone foolhardy enough to cross a raging creek and risk avalanche danger. That’s where Larry Campbell and I came in. Our mission was straightforward enough: hike, swim and snowshoe to the bear’s den, dig it up, find some hair and bring it back. It took five days.

The trip was part of the Great Grizzly Search, a collaborative effort by eight conservation and scientific groups to try and document the presence of grizzlies within the 1.4 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and surrounding country in southwest Montana and central Idaho, an immense 26,073-square-mile chunk of wildlands that hold the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states. It once took me 14 days to cross some of this country on snowshoes and skis, a 125-mile solo midwinter trek from Lost Horse Creek near Darby, Montana, to Elk City, Idaho. I’ve backpacked through these mountains in the summer, fished and swam in most of the lakes, hunted elk and picked huckleberries in the fall and searched for dropped antlers in the spring. I’ve scaled its jagged, granite walls; crawled through its steep jungles of alder and menziesii; slipped, cussed and climbed my way across spruce bottoms tangled in blowdown; basked in glorious fall days in high mountain meadows graced by golden larch and the pungent odor of alpine fir; nearly drowned in its creeks and survived a close call with avalanche. I’ve seen elk, moose, wolverines, black bear, mountain lions and wolves, but never grizzly bears in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. This doesn’t mean they’re not there.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t think so. That’s why, in 1999, the agency approved a plan to “reintroduce” 25 grizzlies to the area as an “experimental, nonessential” population, which means they would not be fully protected under the Endangered Species Act as they are elsewhere where the bears are known to exist. The novel concept was a compromise crafted by an unusual coalition including the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho forest products industry. Other groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Great Bear Foundation, Friends of the Bitterroot (of which Larry Campbell is a member), Friends of the Clearwater, Wilderness Watch, Sierra Club and the Craighead Wildlife/Wildlands Institute did not support the plan. They believe grizzlies already inhabit this country and deserve full protection under the Endangered Species Act. Thus was born the Great Grizzly Search, to prove they’re already there. These groups endorse a more viable option of protecting habitat, letting bears roam in on their own, and perhaps “augmenting” existing populations by bringing in a few more. A sound plan, to be sure, but unlikely to receive political backing in a region where “No Grizzlies” stickers adorn many a pickup truck. “It’s just one more thing we don’t need here,” said one local resident at a public meeting. “We’re already fighting the economy, development, environmentalists and terrorists.” The governors of Idaho and Montana spoke against it, as did Congressional leaders. “They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive animals,” said Representative Helen Chenoweth. “I don’t want them at all in Idaho.”


Good populations of grizzlies roam Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Great Bear  Wilderness areas, and other parts of northern Montana. There are also grizzlies in the Seeley, Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, and in the Yaak – a place less wild than the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. There’s also a sizeable group in and around Yellowstone. But there’s no connection between the northern and southern populations, something wildlife biologists say is necessary to ensure genetic viability and long-term health of grizzlies. In its 1993 Grizzly Recovery Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized the importance of restoring viable populations within the Selway Bitterroot area, providing a vital link where say a boar from the north might conceivably impregnate a sow from the south.
This may have already happened. 



Officially, the last “verified” grizzly in the area was 1946. Unofficially, reports trickle in, including a 1980 sighting by and Idaho Fish and Game officer. In 1998, a Forest Service packer saw a bear with a “prominent hump . . . and a dish-faced profile.” Another Forest Service official found a large track in the same area believed to be a grizzly’s. A Forest Service biologist called both men “experienced woodsmen” and “objective observers” and concluded: “I feel that the sightings are in all likelihood those of a grizzly bear.” But not enough verification, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so the agency persisted with the “experimental, non-essential” plan. No matter. Soon after taking office in 2000, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton put a halt to the grizzly restoration plan, experimental or not.

All the more reason to prove their existence; if the great bear still roams these mountains, the law mandates protection and restoration.


Which is why, in early May of 2001, Larry and I swam a frigid, violent creek and snowshoed our way up into the wilds. Not to say we were miserable. We spent the first night along a natural hot spring, popular enough in the summer that, as I poked around under boulders in search of dry kindling, I serendipitously discovered an old stashed bottle of cheap wine. We drank it, of course, while soaking in hot water and sharing tales of, what else?, close encounters with grizzlies.


If not fear, there is certainly apprehension when looking into the eyes of a wild grizzly from just a few feet away – even if the bear is sedated and confined to a 6-foot, cylindrical metal cage. Which is how I met my first wild grizzly many years ago while visiting with a wildlife biologist in Alberta. The bruin had raided a rancher’s grain so was captured to be moved back deeper into the wilds. Grizzlies evoke strong emotions; fear and awe to name just two. Smelling the musky stench of this burly boar, seeing his mass of bone, muscle, claw and thick, brown hair -- knowing that this animal under the right circumstances might tear of my limbs and consume me -- I also felt sorrow to see him humbled in a cage with a radio-collar around his neck. Subdued as he was, he seemed, well, merely like a bear; hardly the mythical beast we humans tend to either vilify or glorify.
  “Bears are made of the same natural dust as we, and breath the same winds and drink of the same waters,” naturalist John Muir wrote. “A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun; his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours.” Certainly they warrant cautious respect, but mostly what they need from us is tolerance. 


I met a man who has lived in the backwoods of Alberta all of his 69 years, outfitting, logging, mining, trucking and whatever else he could do to get by. When our conversation wound around to grizzlies, he told of a coyote that chased a grizzly up a power pole. Zapped by the power lines, the bear came out of the sky like a runaway grand piano. Both were found dead, he says, the charred bruin on top of the flattened coyote. Not surprisingly, the man didn’t wrap grizzlies in a shroud of mystique. In Alberta, the bears aren’t endangered. “We have a good population here, and they don’t seem to bother anyone, although we do have an occasional incident,” he says. “In 1940, 1941, I saw grizzlies all around me when I was trapping with my Dad. I’ve been around them ever since. You either get used to them or your hair stands up all your life.”

My hair certainly stood up when, while hunting mule deer along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front several years ago a grizzly emerged from a copse of Doug fir just 40 yards to my front, walking right towards me. Before I could even decide how to react, he stood on his hind legs, sniffed the air, dropped to all fours and ran the other way. Another time at dusk in a dense, dark forest of spruce I stumbled onto a grizzly’s cache – a dead deer buried under dirt and spruce bows – and had a terrifying, primordial feeling that a bruin was close by, irritated perhaps, staring me down. I looked around and could barely see him in the shadows, perhaps 50 yards or so away, looking at me. I cautiously and humbly walked away, wondering if each breath would be my last. Another time, in the Badger Two Medicine area, I surprised a sow and her cubs and she bluff charged, full speed, to within perhaps 10 yards of me. It was a stern, dead-serious warning; I thought it was the end of my life.

Yet I never felt so alive.


In his book, “The Great Bear,” John Murray describes it perfectly: “Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even on grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it.”


Not to suggest they’re harmless. A few years ago in September, a bowhunter was gutting an elk in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley when he was mauled and killed by a grizzly. Such stories, though infrequent, often haunt me. Statistically, I know I’m more apt to fall off a cliff, drown, get struck by lightning or have a heart attack than fall pretty to a grizzly. But statistics don’t calm nerves when you stumble upon a steaming pile of bear scat. Invigorating, indeed, and a vital ingredient to wildness.
“When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all the insects that bite have been poisoned, and all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe,” says Canadian naturalist Yorke Edwards, “Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.”

All of which was going through my mind as Larry and I dug deeper through snow towards a bear’s den wondering if, perhaps, the bear was still there?

After our night at the hot spring, we strapped on our snowshoes and climbed and climbed and climbed; leaving behind the spruce and Doug fir, up into the lodgepole, then still higher into alpine fir and larch. We pitched a tent atop packed snow near a frozen lake and then, free at least from heavy packs, made quick time traveling to the rocky ridge where we knew at least one bear had slept the winter.
The rain below had been snow up high and the bear’s tracks were now covered. But we found a whitbark pine snag and a prominent rock outcrop that matched those in the photos taken from the plane, which in turn helped us find the general location of where the bear had emerged. After some time, and lots of digging, we discovered some discolored snow, light brown with some bear hair, where the bear must have tunneled out. Like a gold vein leading to the mother lode, we were able to race the bear’s path as we dug. About 10 feet or so down, knowing we were close, I asked Larry if he thought the bear might have been driven back to the den by the storm. “I don’t know,” he replied. And it caused us both to pause. It reminded me of my favorite Far Side cartoon, in which a fat mother bear sits atop a pile of bones in her den, holding up two human skulls as if they were puppets, telling her cubs, “Okay, one more time and it’s off to bed for both of you . . . ‘Hey, Bob, Think there are any bears in this old cave?’ ‘I don’t know Jim. Let’s take a look.’”

A quote about grizzlies from writer Bob McMeans also came to mind: “We must stay out of their bedrooms.” Leave them space, is what he meant, keep some country wild. Stop building homes and roads and trails everywhere. But just then it had a more literal meaning for me, so Larry stood ready with pepper spray while I continued digging. Soon enough, we reached a dark tunnel under the rocks. With headlamp on, I cautiously climbed in, barely squeezing my way through an opening as wide as my shoulders into a dusky room the size of a small tent. Luckily, no one was home. A musky odor remained, along with a soft bed made of bear grass. Hoar frost hung from the ceiling where moisture rising from the bear all winter froze to the granite wall.

And there was hair, lots of hair.


It seemed promising at first. The hair was brown with light, seemingly silver tips. Charles Jonkel, a renowned grizzly bear biologist who spearheads the Great Grizzly Search, suspected grizzly when he first examined it. But the samples didn’t have enough follicles attached, we were told, making it too tough to analyze for DNA. Larry went back to the site that fall, with renowned grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock, author of “Grizzly Years,” to gather more hair and look for other sign. Doug said the area was ideal grizzly habitat, and that the den just might be a grizzly’s. But the hair they brought back proved, conclusively, to be a black bear, a brown-colored black bear, which is common enough. So the hunt continues, like the elusive quest for Bigfoot, searching an enormous landscape for a relatively small, secretive beast.


Several years ago three yearling grizzlies, a sow and two boars, were seen near Noxon, west of Missoula, and just north of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. A mature sow, likely their mother, was found dead nearby, hit by a train. The cubs denned in the area that winter, and the young sow was found dead come spring. No one knows what happened to the boars.



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