Scott Fitkin started his career chasing ghost bears. As a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the late '80s, he stalked grizzly bear sightings in the Cascade Mountains. Over two decades, he verified a few tracks but never glimpsed a grizzly or even a photograph of one.
Until this June. That's when pictures taken by a hiker in October 2010 in North Cascades National Park, 100 miles northeast of Seattle, were circulated among biologists. They showed a silhouetted bear with the distinctive grizzly traits -- small ears, dished facial profile, a hump on its back. "It had a grizzly gestalt to it," Fitkin says. A panel of experts confirmed the sighting -- the first in the Cascades in 15 years and the only known photos of a living grizzly in the range in perhaps half a century. It reinforced Fitkin's longtime belief: that a few grizzlies still survive in the North Cascades.
Now Fitkin is back where he started two decades ago, searching for grizzlies, this time in the second summer of the Cascades' most ambitious bear survey yet. Fifteen miles deep in the Pasayten Wilderness in the northeastern corner of the range, he and five colleagues are heading into new territory to set up hair-snag stations; their aim is to pluck fur from a grizzly somewhere in 9,600 square miles of rugged mountains. DNA from the hair could confirm the presence of grizzlies and indicate how isolated they are from other populations. Last year, 700 hair samples revealed only black bears. But this year, hope runs high.
As the August dusk falls, the team crowds into an old log cabin to plan for the next day. "Just think like a grizzly," says Fitkin to Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines, with whom he has worked for 20 years. In the middle of the room, Gaines pores over maps under a headlamp, looking for meadows -- bear habitat -- amid snaking contour lines. Technician Aja Woodrow traces a route with his finger to a promising location, but runs into white space. "We're going off the map," he says.
Gaines, who leads the fieldwork for Cascades grizzly recovery, smiles. "I like going off the map."
"I feel good today," Gaines says early the next morning. "Perky. A perky 50 years old." It's Gaines' birthday, and he starts down the trail with eager, long-legged strides. Early sunlight gilds the tops of pines.
Gaines was only 27 when he started mapping grizzly bear habitat across the Cascades. In 1991, his work led to the designation of the North Cascades as the second-largest federal grizzly bear recovery area in the country; the other five are clustered in the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a grizzly bear recovery plan for the Cascades, hoping to one day restore a viable population of 200 to 400 bears. Since then, however, not much has happened, even as the population teeters on the edge of oblivion.
Based on sightings and tracks over the years, biologists estimate that fewer than 20 grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades -- the last U.S. outpost of West Coast grizzlies that once roamed from Canada to Mexico. Another 25 or fewer survive just north of the border in the Canadian Cascades, isolated from the rest of Canada's 25,000-some grizzlies. The Cascades population is still reeling from the orchestrated massacre of the trapping days; between 1827 and 1859, 3,788 grizzly bear hides were shipped out of Northwest trading posts, according to Hudson's Bay Company records. By 1860, an estimated 350 grizzly bears survived in the Cascades, down from an historical population of around 1,000. Between 1900 and 1967, people killed another 66 bears, as recounted in David Knibb's book, Grizzly Wars.
Despite the creation of North Cascades National Park in 1968, and the federal protection of all grizzlies in the Lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, they never made a comeback here. The ESA listing was supposed to trigger efforts to restore Ursus arctos horribilis in the Cascades, but 35 years later there's little to show for it. State and federal land managers in the area have protected grizzly habitat, secured garbage cans in campgrounds and educated the public. But no progress has been made on what most biologists say is essential for recovery: bringing bears into the Cascades from healthier populations.
Just getting the federal government to complete the necessary paperwork has been frustrating for advocates. In 1990, environmentalists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to upgrade the bear's status in the Cascades from "threatened" to the more urgent "endangered" in order to spur recovery action. The agency gave a familiar response: The Cascades grizzly deserves to be listed as endangered, but a lack of resources -- and a plethora of more endangered species -- precludes it. Seven years later, the agency finally finished a Cascades grizzly recovery plan that called for starting the process within five years. But years dragged by; activists sued again in 2004 to jumpstart recovery, and the case was dismissed.
Despite the setbacks, bear backers haven't given up. They're still pushing Fish and Wildlife to start the document that would pave the way to recovery -- an environmental impact statement (EIS) examining how more grizzly bears would affect the Cascades ecosystem and communities. To do so, the agency needs $1.2 million -- not much in a world of trillion-dollar debt, but a fortune when it comes to grizzly bear recovery. Last year, state and federal agencies spent some $10.7 million on grizzlies in the Lower 48 on everything from law enforcement and human-bear conflicts to monitoring and recovery. The vast majority of that was spent in the Rockies, where populations have grown to over 1,500 grizzlies. Fish and Wildlife's grizzly bear recovery office, which coordinates the collaborative effort, has a 2011 budget of just $1.5 million. The bulk -- $900,000 -- is allocated for management of Yellowstone's rebounding population. The Cascades received $20,000.
This disparity in recovery funding has long irked local advocates. Some blame what they call "Rocky Mountain syndrome" -- a perceived institutional bias that keeps money where there are already more programs and more bears (as well as other wildlife) on the ground, even as Cascades grizzlies face extirpation.
"The Cascades grizzly bear has always been the red-headed stepchild of the grizzly bear recovery program," says Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest, the leading local advocacy group for grizzly recovery. "It generally gets the hand-me-downs, leftovers and pocket change."
The biologists who've spent their careers working for the Cascades grizzly are also frustrated, though they speak more diplomatically.
"As a biologist, I have pushed the issue that we're losing options on our population in the Cascades pretty rapidly," says Gaines. "If we truly make decisions about recovery in terms of biological need, the Cascades come up pretty darn high."