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In Search of the Grizzly (if Any Are Left)

By William Yardley
New York Times

The New York Times documents story of the most ambitious effort ever to document whether grizzlies still exist in the North Cascades of Washington. “If these bears are to have a future,” said Joe Scott, the international program director for Conservation Northwest, “the United States and British Columbia governments must do their job — boost Cascades bears with a small number of young animals from areas where grizzly bears are more numerous.”

In Search of the Grizzly (if Any Are Left)

William Gaines, a wildlife biologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, looked for strands of bear hair in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington. Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

PASAYTEN WILDERNESS, Wash. — Past the asters and aspen and subalpine fir, past the quick, cold creeks and the huckleberry hillsides, the bear hunter stopped and cocked his tweezers.

“Here,” said Bill Gaines, a wildlife biologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, “is the mother lode.”

Caught on a prong of barbed wire that he had strung weeks earlier in these remote mountains was a tantalizing clue: strands of light brown bear hair.

“Oh, look at that, look at that root right there,” he said. “That’s really good.”

It will be months before DNA tests tell the full story: did those hairs belong to a black bear, a relatively common resident here, or were they snagged from the far more elusive grizzly? The last confirmed sighting of a grizzly in the North Cascades was in 1996.

Now Mr. Gaines is leading the most ambitious effort ever to document whether grizzlies still exist here — a century after fur trappers and ranchers killed them off by the hundreds — at a time when tension is high in the West over the fate of wild predators like gray wolves. While many people want the grizzlies, an endangered species, to make a comeback here, others worry that more bears will mean more conflict.

“Grizzlies are a threat to livestock and to humans,” said John Stuhlmiller, the director of government relations at the Washington State Farm Bureau. “People might think they’re neat and they might want to go see them in the zoo, but in the wild they’re not a friendly, cuddly creature.”

People whose livelihoods are not threatened by predators do not get it, Mr. Stuhlmiller said. “If my 401(k) was being raided by grizzly bears, I would think differently,” he said.

For nearly 30 years the federal government has had a program to help restore the grizzly bear population in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. It has made a difference in places like Yellowstone National Park and the Continental Divide region of Montana, but not in the North Cascades, one of six designated recovery zones. Instead, this area has been locked in a virtual standstill as political winds shift over the preservation of large predators.

Grizzlies were named a protected species in 1975. Under protection, their population tripled in parts of the Rockies and by 2007, they were removed from the list. But last September, a federal judge in Montana ordered grizzlies back on, citing threats that included changes to their habitat caused by climate change.

In the North Cascades, wildlife officials agreed 13 years ago to conduct a formal environmental review to determine the best way to ensure recovery, including augmenting the population with bears from elsewhere. But the money needed for the review, $1 million to $2 million, has never been allocated by the perpetually strapped agency that oversees the effort, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Now experts say only a handful of grizzlies may remain in the North Cascades, likely crossing back and forth over the border with Canada.

“If these bears are to have a future,” said Joe Scott, the international program director for Conservation Northwest, “the United States and British Columbia governments must do their job — boost Cascades bears with a small number of young animals from areas where grizzly bears are more numerous.”

Federal wildlife officials say politics and budget limitations force difficult questions.

Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who has worked on the program since its inception in 1981, said the anger among ranchers and some state governments over wolf reintroduction, and the issue’s constant churn through federal courts, had bred mistrust in wildlife agencies that has hurt the prospects for bear recovery in some areas, at least in the near term.

“We don’t really have people jumping up and down to put grizzlies anywhere at this point, people in the Congress that is,” said Mr. Servheen, who is based in Montana.

There is even disagreement over whether it matters if grizzlies roam these mountains, given the species’ relative health elsewhere and the plight of more endangered species.

“Is it so critical to the future of grizzly bears as a world species if the North Cascades fades away?” said Doug Zimmer, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Just asking that makes my teeth hurt.”

Yet small steps are being taken. If the study in the North Cascades proves that grizzlies still live in the area, advocates for recovery will probably face less political opposition. This is because they would be augmenting the historic population, not trying to rebuild the population from scratch when there were no bears at all.

Either way, Mr. Gaines, who wrote his doctoral thesis on black bears, wants to know that he has tried as hard as he can to learn what is out here, he said.

This summer and early fall, with money from a $90,000 federal grant, Mr. Gaines has hired horse teams and a temporary six-member research crew to trek deep in the wilderness, far from where most people hike. The crew has set up about 90 corrals, surrounding pungent bear bait of fish guts and road kill with barbed wire designed to snare bear hair as animals make their way to and from the stew. Every two weeks the crews collect bear hair and memory cards from digital infrared cameras mounted at the corrals.

Asked whether the search so far has yielded firm evidence, he noted that black bears and grizzlies can be surprisingly easy to confuse. He said that he would not draw conclusions until the DNA tests come back but that the crews were searching in areas considered to be ideal grizzly habitat.

“We’re looking in the right places,” he said.

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