The forgotten North Cascades grizzly bear

  • Fisher Creek Basin in North Cascades National Park, where the last known grizzly bear killed in the Cascades was shot in 1967.

    Nathan Rice
  • This photo, taken in October 2010, is the first confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades in 15 years.

    Joe Sebille
  • Grizzly sightings are fairly common in Yellowstone, where this bear was spotted.

    Robert Bunch
  • Biologists Bill Gaines and Scott Fitkin look for hair snag locations in an old log cabin 15 miles deep in the Pasayten Wilderness.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines and technician Aja Woodrow hike deeper into the Pasayten Wilderness to set up hair snag corrals.

    Nathan Rice
  • Forest Service technician Aja Woodrow pours the cattle blood and salmon carcass lure to attract carnivores to the hair snag corral. The lure is liquefied so it doesn't become a food source.

    Nathan Rice

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The urgency of Cascades grizzly recovery is not apparent from Servheen's Missoula office. "The habitat will always be there," he says. And the potential genetic importance of remaining bears will diminish when they eventually mix with introduced bears. But the agency's own documents point to the value of saving the genetics of what biologists believe could be the last salmon-eating grizzlies left in the Lower 48. The Fish and Wildlife office in Washington wrote in a 2002 budget request that "prompt action could ensure that elements of the genetic material that evolved in this ecosystem will be present in the future grizzly bear population."

The Cascades biologists see other reasons not to delay: The regulatory hurdles for reintroducing bears into empty habitat could be higher than those for augmenting a population already there; the same is true for winning public support. They point to the Cabinet-Yaak population in northwestern Montana, where Fish and Wildlife started a quiet reintroduction effort in the late '80s; the agency has now moved 13 bears from Canada and the nearby Northern Continental Divide area into a once-disappearing population. "The road to recovery when you're starting from scratch is much more challenging than when you already have something to build from," says Gaines.

With a chronic lack of funding, though, Servheen says recovery must focus on continuing work in the Rockies. He struggles with having to choose one group of bears over another. "It makes me uncomfortable," he says. "I lay awake at night thinking about those things."

A mammoth grizzly bear paw print, cast in plaster, hangs from the wall of Doug Zimmer's office at Fish and Wildlife headquarters in Lacey, Wash. The print is from Montana. Below, a black telephone sits all by itself in the corner of the room -- it's the grizzly bear hotline for the entire state of Washington. When somebody somewhere thinks they saw a grizzly, they dial this number and Zimmer picks up. He gets 20 to 30 calls a year.

Two decades ago, when bear scat made up most of the evidence for Cascades grizzlies, Zimmer recalls a skeptical state wildlife director referring to the "Endangered Feces Act." Jon Almack, who tracked grizzly sightings for the state in the '90s, remembers being tasked with monitoring Sasquatch sightings, too. "It was kind of like living an ongoing joke," he says.

So when Zimmer got word of the confirmed grizzly sighting -- "Big smile," he says. "It was a tremendous sense of relief for me that they didn't wink out on my watch." Within hours of the news, the Cascades grizzly had a Twitter account; the next day, the sighting made headlines all the way to London. Advocates hope the publicity will help spur recovery.

Just getting the funding to search for grizzlies is a step. With prompting from the recovery office and $20,000 for this year's survey, the team cobbled together a $100,000 budget with another $60,000 from Fish and Wildlife Region 1 and $20,000 from the Forest Service. Biologists hope for more funding to continue the survey next year. The odds are slim that the piecemeal project might lead to congressional funding for an EIS and future recovery efforts, but DNA proof from a grizzly hair could help.

"The question is, can (grizzlies) hang on long enough until we can get resources to the North Cascades?" asks Zimmer. "I've been working on Cascades grizzly bear recovery for close to 25 years. I'm not about to give up."

At the crest of a ridge, Bill Gaines veers from the trail. Jagged, snowy peaks rise in the distance; the clear-cuts of Canada sprawl to the north. In the valley below, meadows glow bright green with tender plants that grizzlies might browse.

Down in the valley, the two biologists pile branches in the middle of a clearing. They stretch a coil of barbed wire between trees around the perimeter, 18 inches high so a curious grizzly might graze it by stepping over or crawling underneath, hopefully leaving behind a tuft of fur. Gaines fixes a motion-sensor camera to a nearby tree. Finally, Woodrow unleashes the lure, holding his breath to pour a rotten stew of liquefied salmon carcass and cow blood over the woodpile. The hair trap is set. A crew will return in two weeks to check it. "Come on, grizzly bear," says Woodrow.

Later that night in the cabin, Gaines and Fitkin swap stories of past fieldwork -- the guy who fell chest deep through snow into a black bear den and scrambled out missing a boot; the time that same guy tumbled into a wolf den full of pups. Stories of grizzly bears are notably absent.

When talk turns to the reason they're out there, to all that must happen before grizzlies are brought in and the top tier of the Cascades ecosystem is one day restored, a silence fills the room.

"Someday, Bill," says Fitkin from the darkness. "Someday we'll be moving bears. "

This story is supported by donors to the High Country News Research Fund.

The online version of this story has been corrected to reflect that North Cascades National Park is northeast of Seattle, not northwest.

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