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Reporter's notebook: How to snag a grizzly

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Nathan Rice | Aug 15, 2011 05:00 AM

“Salmon carcass, cattle blood and time. In a barrel.”

That’s the rank concoction that biologists in Washington state are using to coax rare carnivores in for a candid photo shoot, and to snag a few precious hairs.

“Burns the nostrils,” says Aja Woodrow, a biological technician with the US Forest Service, wincing as he pours the nasty brew over a pile of sticks encircled by hair-snagging barbed wire. On a nearby tree, a motion-sensor camera (complete with video) waits to capture unsuspecting wildlife drawn in by the stench. Deep in the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border, the site is sure to attract some wild critters, but this team is after the elusive ones: wolves, wolverines, Canada lynx, martens, black bears and, in particular, grizzlies.

standing bear

Researchers will use remote camera photos and DNA extracted from hairs to better understand carnivore populations -- including, they hope, the recently sighted grizzly bear and a new wolf pack in the state. The information could also reveal how carnivores move across the rugged landscape and what obstacles stand in their way -- like the three major highways that cut through the heart of the Cascades.

In the second year of an ambitious survey effort, this cadre of carnivore researchers is now expanding into new territory. Last year, they covered about 9 percent of the convoluted topography of the North Cascades ecosystem, which ranges some 9600 square miles on the U.S. side of the border. This year they hope to survey a similarly sized chunk of land. Each year gets more demanding as they push deeper into the mountains.

“We’re trying to sample as much of the ecosystem as humanly possible -- within reason,” says Jesse McCarty, wildlife biologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

It’s a daunting task so the group is using collaboration and cutting edge technology to make their job easier. Faced with waning funding for carnivore recovery in the Cascades, the group -- known collectively as the Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project -- is pulling talent and dollars from a diverse set of agencies and organizations. Biologists from US Forest Service, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, North Cascades National Park, and the Western Transportation Institute get additional funding from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle City Light, Washington State Department of Transportation, Conservation Northwest and Patagonia, to name a few.

By targeting a suite of carnivore species, the effort will help answer a few different research questions of interest to the various partners. The project began with Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute, a group that researches rural transportation and road ecology, along with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, studying how highways affect black bears and martens, and if those barriers might prevent breeding between carnivore populations on either side of the roads. The same stinky methods used to attract those critters also work on grizzlies, so the Institute teamed up with federal and state agencies to broaden the study area and try to detect the uber-rare North Cascades grizzly bear, whose recovery effort has struggled for funding since it was listed as federally threatened in 1975.

bear eye

Understanding these far-ranging animals -- particularly on a population level -- has long challenged biologists. But new methods for analyzing DNA can now pull a treasure trove of information from hair samples. Genetic tests can determine the species and sex of the animal, its diet, the number of individual animals sampled, their relatedness to other populations (like those across the highway) and even estimate population size. That information can then be used down the road to reconnect fragmented populations through land use planning, relocation of animals across barriers and wildlife passages across highways, such as those now underway on Interstate 90. If a grizzly bear happens upon that odorific bait and rubs the barbed wire, the team will have DNA confirmation of the recent sighting in the Cascades, along with a host of new information to guide a long-awaited recovery effort, should the US Fish and Wildlife Service make that a priority.

A few days after joining biologists in the Pasayten, I meet McCarty alongside Highway 2 near Stevens Pass to check sites for hair and photos. After winding through a maze of logging roads, we park the car, walk into the forest and are quickly enveloped by thick brush. Upon finding the site, I notice a thick tuft of hair hanging from the barbed wire strung between trees.

“I would definitely say it’s bear hair,” McCarty says. He carefully removes the hair from the wire with tweezers and stuffs it in a small envelope. “The black bears in this country come in all shades and colors, so it’s really difficult to tell (them from grizzlies) by morphology alone. That’s why we rely on genetics.”

Back at his office in Wenatchee, McCarty loads the photos from the remote camera. We watch a small rabbit hop around the site in stop-motion. A Douglas squirrel’s eyes illuminate in the flash of the camera. Then, a bear arrives -- a scraggly, blonde-colored black bear -- looking for a meal in the pile of sticks but finding nothing but stink. Another black bear pokes its head into the frame but stays out of the barbed wire corral.

“We haven’t seen anything that looks like a grizzly yet,” McCarty says. “Unfortunately.”

But the season’s not over yet. Field crews will keep working into October as long as weather allows. The partnership is hoping to secure more funding to continue the grizzly bear portion of the survey into next year.

“We keep rockin’ until the money’s gone,” says McCarty.

Nathan Rice is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Remote camera bear photos courtesy the Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project.

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