By Eric Wagner
The first sign that we’re close is a sickly sweet odor among the otherwise clean scents of fir and spruce. Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, pushes through a thatch of branches. “Here it is,” he says, coming to a large brush pile.
We are near Castle Mountain in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, about ten miles south of the US-Canada border. The pile sits within a perimeter of barbed wire called a snare corral. The brush is meant to mimic a grizzly bear food cache and so pique the bears’ interest. To entice them still more, Fitkin has poured a slurry of fermented salmon guts and cows’ blood over it. Now, in late September, the pile is a shambles—a good sign. If the bears have taken the bait, then they’ve left behind something even more valuable. Fitkin begins a careful circuit, examining each barb. On four he finds fur, varying from a few strands to a generous tuft. He tweezes each barb’s worth into an envelope. DNA analysis will tell him later what species the hair belongs to, but he isn’t getting his hopes up: all of them are black, and probably from black bears. Fitkin wants grizzlies. He has searched for them in these mountains for more than 20 years and has yet to see one. But in this, the final year of a three-year survey, he and his colleagues have gone all out. They’ve set up dozens of snare corrals throughout remote parts of the Cascade Mountains, miles from anywhere. If there are grizzlies to be found, then they will find them. Or so they hope.
The remnants of the only population outside of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem, the North Cascades grizzlies used to number in the thousands and range as far south as California. But more than 100 years of trapping and general persecution have left somewhere between 0.03 and 27 bears, depending on who is counting and the occupancy model they use, within the 10,000 square miles of mountainous terrain. For an animal so charismatic and rare, the North Cascade grizzly has gotten relatively little attention. Grizzlies were first listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. Work to restore them has gone better than expected, particularly in Wyoming and Montana. A recent analysis
in northern Montana estimated that the region supported over 750 grizzlies—more than twice as many as anyone thought. Environmentalists and federal managers now regularly spar in court over whether to delist them. Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that such a move could begin as early as next year. Here in Washington state, though, efforts to bring back grizzlies have languished, mired in a bureaucratic sludge. A recovery plan for the region was drafted in 1997, but it has yet to be acted upon. For that to happen, biologists need to complete an environmental impact statement. But neither state nor federal agencies can commit much money—it would cost a little over $1 million—and funding isn’t helped by the fact that what little federal support there is tends to go to the Rockies; the North Cascades presently must make do with a relative pittance. So Fitkin waits and looks, buoyed by the occasional tantalizing hint that grizzlies still haunt the North Cascades’ hidden reaches.
A single animal
Every year Washington biologists receive word of 30 or so possible sightings, though most don’t stand up to investigation. In the fall of 2010 a hiker named Joe Sebille made one such report: he saw an enormous bear in North Cascades National Park. From about a quarter-mile away, he snapped several pictures. It wasn’t until the following May that the pictures came to the attention of Fitkin and his colleagues, but what they saw excited them. The bear, even in silhouette, appeared to have a hump, small ears, a broad face—all characteristic of grizzlies. When the shot was sent to other bear biologists, their response was nearly unanimous: here was a grizzly, the first confirmed sighting in the North Cascades since 1996. Soon after, though, another hiker came forward. He had been in the same area a day or so later, and had also photographed an enormous bear. But he had captured the bear head-on, rather than in silhouette. His pictures showed a large bear with small ears and a hump. The problem was that it was clearly a black bear. Fitkin may have felt a tremor, but his faith was unwavering. “I don’t think we should discount the Sebille photo just because another bear was seen in the area,” he says. Other biologists aren’t so sure. “What does it mean to have a picture of a single animal in a system?” asks Bob Naney, a wildlife biologist retired from the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked with Fitkin. “It means you have a picture of a single animal in a system.” Still, a single animal is better than none at all, especially since the most likely solution for saving the North Cascades grizzly is transplanting bears from the Rockies. Should that happen, even one existing bear is crucial, Naney says: it transforms the act from “reintroduction” to augmentation of an existing population, however small it might be.
Courtesy Eric Wagner The last snare corral of the day is a few miles down the trail. As we traverse the contour across a steep hillside, Fitkin points to the Columbian ground squirrels peering out at us from their dens. “Great grizzly food,” he says. When we get to the site, though, he finds no hair on any barbs. “Shoot,” he says. “I thought this was a great spot. Look at the slide alder down there, all the ground squirrels. This is grizzly country.” And it’s true. The mountains, the sky, the forest that stretches unbroken as far as we can see—this should be grizzly country. But grizzlies do not make aesthetic judgments. Fitkin retrieves a memory card from a motion-activated camera lashed to a nearby tree, set up in case something has nosed around the corral’s perimeter without entering. We spool up all the barbed wire and prepare to leave, but Fitkin tells me to wait a second. “Let’s see if we’ve got anyone in the drainage,” he says. He walks to an opening in the trees and takes a series of deep, huffing breaths. Then he cups his hands to his mouth and howls like a wolf. The imitation is uncanny, the howl haunting and lonely. We listen for a few moments, but nothing answers. Fitkin says wolves must not be in this drainage right now; and anyway, the wind probably swallowed the sound. He tells me later that he honed his technique while listening to tapes of wolves in his truck, howling along with them as he drove. “I have a thing about chasing ghosts,” he says. We heft our packs and start the long hike back to camp. We are the last pair to return; neither of the other two teams had any luck either. The next day, as we all head out to the trailhead, Fitkin is already strategizing about where he will search next year. When I get back to Seattle later that night, I have a message from him. He has looked through all the video from the cameras, and he’s happy to report that a lynx, two black bears, and a wolf all visited the sites. Sure, there weren’t any grizzlies, but their absence was not unexpected. And in a way, he seems almost buoyed by the results: if finding a handful of grizzlies spread across the whole of western Washington were easy, then what would be the point of looking? Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and High Country News, among other places. Top image courtesy Eric Wagner