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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

The Great Grizzly Search

A bear's sighting in the Bitterroot wilderness in Montana has experts puzzled. Is the greatest predator of all still roaming in a region few believed they were?

July 28, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREAT BURN WILDERNESS, Mont. — 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.

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