The truth about bears - The Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project

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The truth about bears - The Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project
special
report
THE TRUTH
ABOUT BEARS
1. The Mystery
2. The Maps
3. The Skills
Oso. Xiong. Bruin. Bjorn. Bear. From Cro-Magnons to Colbert, humans of
all cultures have been obsessed with bears since we started competing
for cave space. Backpackers know why better than most: As both
slideshow highlights and boogeymen, bears remain the most potent
reminder of our primal connection to the wild—and our place in it. Over
the years, we’ve alternately feared, worshipped, or exterminated them.
But new, myth-busting science allows us to know them better—and stay
safer—than ever before. This is the story of how bears are coming back,
and why that’s good news for us, too. By Ted Alvarez
46 BACKPACKER 03.2013
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BACKPACKER 00.2005
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photo by istockphoto.com / ricardo reitmeyer
Researchers are looking for
any sign of the few grizzlies
remaining in washington’s
North Cascades, but even
tracks have proved elusive.
Ghost or
Grizzly?
The
Mystery
Have the biggest predators in
North America managed to
survive unseen in North Cascades
National Park for 50 years? Our
The Truth About Bears
1. The Mystery
34 BACKPACKER 01.2013
photoS BY (Clockwise from top left) John Marriott; Chris Cheadle / All Canada Photos / SuperStock; Paul Morrison; Graham Osborne / All Canada Photos / SuperStock
scout joins the search.
We run into a bear at
the end of our first day
looking for grizzlies
in Washington’s North
Cascades National Park.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind: a
runty black, not much bigger than a
large Rottweiler, that ambles past our
camp at Copper Creek. Probably a
few thousand calories short of its daily
huckleberry haul, it ignores us without
so much as a glance before leaving
a splat of half-digested mixed-berry
casserole on the trail.
Glossy black fur, Roman nose, big
ears: From 30 yards away, there’s
no way I’d mistake it for its larger
cousin, but it still feels like a good
omen. As the bear gains distance in
the dimming twilight, it mixes with
its own shadow, inflating in my sight
as it noses through an electric-green
huckleberry understory and past
dense trunks of silver fir. It’s easy to
believe that if we’re lucky enough
to find a grizzly out here, it might
look a lot like this. From now on,
every movement—a jiggling twig, a
fleeting shadow—catches my eye as a
potential sign of the Griz.
My odds of seeing one hover only
slightly above my chances of highfiving Sasquatch. Nobody really knows
exactly how many isolated grizzlies
hide in the tangle of mile-deep river
canyons, old-growth forests, city-size
glaciers, dragon-tail ridges, and tilted
heather meadows that knot together
the greater North Cascades ecosystem.
It’s a border-straddling wilderness
stronghold that’s bigger than Maryland.
Since a hunter shot the last grizzly
03.2013 BACKPACKER 49
bear here—in Fisher Creek Basin in
1967—the evidence supporting their
existence has been largely the same as
that supporting Bigfoot’s: split-second
glimpses from a distance, secondhand
accounts, and errant footprints leading
toward cryptozoological myth. Without
any physical or photographic evidence,
hopeful biologists and conservationists
subsisted on a slow trickle of dubious
sightings, sometimes several years
apart. A 14-year drought after 1996
convinced many that the Cascades
grizzly was nothing but a legend.
But then came the miracle photo: In
October 2010, a hiker snapped a shot
of a fat, healthy grizzly near Cascade
Pass, too far south to be a Canadian
bear on a work visa. It was the first
confirmed photo of a live grizzly in the
North Cascades in almost 50 years: a
Loch Ness-caliber money shot.
The photo dropped a month after
I moved to Seattle, and the sheer
wonder of it floored me like images
from a Mars rover landing: grizzlies!
A mere two-and-a-half hours from a
major metropolitan area, closer than
anywhere else in the country! Two
years later, I’m still hopped up on
possibility—and so is Bill Gaines, an
independent wildlife ecologist and
U.S. Forest Service veteran. He serves
as a principal investigator for the
Cascade Carnivore Connectivity Project,
a joint effort between academia and
government aimed at mapping how
carnivores move and breed between
ecosystems, and how roads affect their
conservation and recovery. The photo
poured gasoline on the group’s most
ambitious project yet: a three-year
survey funded by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service targeted at determining
the status of the grizzly population and
its potential recovery. The USFWS has
a mandate to support recovery efforts
for every endangered species—but
it can’t even make baby steps until
biologists know how many animals
they’re dealing with, and thus how
best to proceed. For Cascade grizzlies,
that number is still a blank.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” says
Gaines. “That photo was pretty
exciting. But it’s like looking for a
moving needle in a haystack. Three
haystacks, actually—there’s a lot of
luck involved.”
He and others have been searching
for grizzlies here since the late 1980s.
They believe Cascade grizzlies should
be a wildlife conservation cause célèbre,
like Yellowstone’s wolves in the 1990s.
While grizzly populations boom in other
Lower 48 recovery zones, Cascades
grizzlies barely hang on, despite having
access to arguably the best habitat. We
pushed bears so deep into the wild that
they backed into a genetic bottleneck,
where fragmented populations face
grim prospects for breeding, or even
finding each other.
And yet they survive. Biologists
believe as many as 20 grizzlies persist
in Washington’s Cascades, though
pessimists (realists?) would peg that
number closer to five. Another 20 or so
live immediately north of the border,
and their ranges overlap. Rather than
reintroduce the species, bear biologists
have the rare opportunity to preserve
and extend an original grizzly genetic
line that reaches back millennia. A
romantic might even say restoring
bears to their full might here, in one
of the final spaces we’ve left for them,
goes a little way toward atoning for
centuries of persecution.
A romantic would be disheartened
by the progress so far. In two years
of searching, Gaines has failed to turn
up so much as a grizzly eyelash. But
where past surveys featured a mix of
road- and trail-accessed sites, this third
and final season, Gaines’s research team
has refined its focus; they’re boring
into the trackless, inaccessible heart of
the park on foot, research equipment
stowed in hulking packs. I join Gaines
and two of his colleagues for their final
trip of the project: a 50-mile push up
and over Hannegan Pass, down into
the Chilliwack River basin, and up to
basecamp on obscure Easy Ridge via
little-used climbers’ paths. From there,
we’ll abandon even the semblance
of trails for interminable bushwhacks
across sketchy slopes until we drop off
the edge of the world. It’s the last place
a human should be, and therefore the
perfect place to find our ghost grizzly.
Happy coincidence: Prime
grizzly habitat doubles as Valhalla
for backpackers. We cross teal rivers,
wind around 200-foot-high firs, and
traverse countless meadows bloodied
with turning blueberry. At least, I think
they’re blueberries.
“It’s all Vaccinium,” explains Kristen
Richardson, a 29-year-old grad student.
She’s referring to the umbrella genus
for the seven species of berry that
form the staple of any Cascade bear’s
diet. With a giant smile, ruddy cheeks,
and a big braying laugh, the blonde
defies my expectations of a wildlife
scientist by swearing like an off-duty
Marine and sneaking off for regular
smoke breaks.
In fact, this entire crew is more
Indiana Jones than Nutty Professor.
Compact and wiry, Aja Woodrow,
34, acts as our advance scout, pole
vaulting like a mountain goat over
boulders and singing “Call Me Maybe”
as he bounces up the slope. An
ornithologist by training, he honed
his superhuman ability to identify bird
calls on extended research trips in
Costa Rica, China, and Ecuador.
Gaines, 51, is tall and lean, with
kind blue eyes and an eagle nose.
Behind a casual “aw, shucks” bearing
lies expedition experience ripped
from a Hemingway travelogue. While
gathered around the Jetboil, his
teammates prod him into talking about
the time he won a grant for a 1994
journey to be the first to penetrate
GHOST STORIES See video and slideshows from the author’s Cascades trip and hear directly from
bear biologists on backpacker.com and in our iPad edition. Subscribe at backpacker.com/ipad.
50 BACKPACKER 03.2013
illustrations by andy potts (previous spread); MCKIBILLO
BEARS
1. The
Mystery
Pakistan’s northern Karakoram Range
on skis in search of rare carnivores. He
quietly relays a tale filled with 19,000foot passes, avalanche near-misses, and
snow leopards wandering into camp—
all with zero pretension, the way your
bro might talk about a weekend hut
trip: “It was pretty neat.”
Together, my campmates serve as a
walking, talking, very entertaining field
guide. They make epic biodiversity leap
to life: Formerly drab songbirds like the
pine siskin become continent-crossing
heroes; we marvel at long-lived frog
tadpoles that scatter in clear pools.
“They’ll spend years in the water before
they metamorphose,” says Woodrow.
I soak it all in—when I can keep
up. I’ve spent the majority of my
adult life logging big trail miles, but
the eggheads leave me in the dust.
We motor up a faint brown ribbon,
a steep, overgrown suggestion of a
path, and I’m on afterburners just to
keep Gaines and his giraffe strides
from disappearing behind the next
switchback. None of this should
surprise me: All summer the survey
crew spends the workweek racking
up mileage and elevation gains and
losses that would shame the burliest
mountain guide. Plus, they lack the
advantages of trails or even established
routes. They’re hardened by going
where the animals go, whether it’s a
brush-choked drainage or a hanging
valley walled off on three sides by
cliffs and scree.
Once out here, you don’t really
find the bears; they find you. A
month ago, the team deployed six
corrals in the Easy Ridge “hex”—a
25,000-acre designation meant to
roughly approximate a female grizzly
bear’s home range. Each room-size
corral consists of a ring of barbed
wire tied to trees at about bearchest height, with a motion-triggered
camera strategically placed to capture
the whole zone. In the middle lies the
bait pile: a mound of branches, bark,
and sticks seasoned liberally with a
noxious slurry bears find irresistible.
It’s made from fish parts, cow blood,
and secret ingredients (like fruit and
licorice), all left to ferment over the
build up fat reserves enter an all-out
gorgefest known as hyperphagia.
During this phase, an adult grizzly
requires up to 30,000 calories a
day—equivalent to 52 Big Macs,
or 71,428 berries. But a long, dry
summer and fall busted the berry
crop, so bears will range farther and
wider to fill up—hopefully right into
the team’s odiferous traps.
Historically, grizzlies
Myth
Bears can’t
run downhill.
Running from a bear is always a bad
idea (unless unless you’re within
seconds of safe harbor, like a cabin
or car). Not only could it trigger a
chase response, bears can also sprint
faster than a racehorse (35 mph)
over short distances. People used to
advise that you should run downhill
to evade bears, since they would be
hampered by short forelegs on steep
descents. Not true. Indeed, Editor
Dennis Lewon was once trail running in
California, rounded a blind corner, and
almost collided with a bear that was
careening downhill at full speed. “We
missed each other by feet,” he says.
winter in a 55-gallon drum. “It’s like
cologne to bears,” says Woodrow.
“On camera, we catch them really
rolling around in it.” When bruins
lumber into the zone, they have to
step over or shimmy under the wire,
where the barbs yank out a tuft of
hair for future DNA testing.
The corrals attract more than bears:
Each season, photos document wolves,
pine martens, lynx, weasels, cougars,
and even wolverines dropping in for
a sniff. Viewed in quick succession, it
looks like a stinky wildlife kegger.
This year’s conditions boost our
hopes of getting lucky on this last-ditch
outing. In late fall, bears desperate to
crowded the North Cascades: The
Hudson’s Bay Company shipped
3,788 hides from the region between
1827 and 1859. As the Northwest
boomed, human pressure pushed
the bears away from salmon streams
and deeper into the mountains. Even
there, grizzlies’ perpetual status as
a dangerous bane of ranchers led
to unregulated hunting that wiped
out the Cascades’ core population
of grizzlies by the late 1960s. North
Cascades earned national park
status in 1968, one year after the
Fisher Creek grizzly was killed,
and grizzlies earned a spot on the
Endangered Species list in 1975.
But by then, Cascades grizzlies had
already faded to shadows.
Without competition from
grizzlies, black bears have thrived
here and elsewhere (see maps,
page 56), but even so, there’s plenty
of food left at the table. Gaines
and other bear biologists think the
productive landscape of the North
Cascades could support as many as
400 grizzlies.
They’ll need human help to reach
such density, but other recovery
efforts have been successful
against long odds. “You get down
to certain numbers with limited
genetic diversity, and you wonder,
Is it too late?” says Scott Fitkin, a
Washington state Department of Fish
and Wildlife biologist who’s been
at the front lines of bear research
and recovery since 1989. “But there
03.2013 BACKPACKER 51
have been subpopulations in other
ecosystems on the Canadian side of
the line that rebounded from one or
two females with a little help from
natural immigration.”
And grizzlies have a welldocumented history of exploiting
wilderness nooks and crannies for
decades, fooling us into thinking they’ve
vanished for good, only to explode
unexpectedly out of some wild redoubt.
In 1979, 27 years after the “last” grizzly
was killed in Colorado, a bow-hunting
guide ran into a 400-pound sow. Its
pelt and skeleton hang in the Denver
Museum of Nature & Science.
An expanded grizzly presence in the
North Cascades would be worth more
than camera ops for backpackers.
As a keystone predator, grizzlies
would affect the overall ecosystem in
profound ways. We know the benefits,
thanks to successful recovery efforts
in the greater Yellowstone and Glacier
regions, where about 600 and 950
grizzlies live, respectively.
Grizzlies dig for roots, for example,
and research in Montana shows
meadows that they’ve rototilled are
more productive—it actually affects soil
chemistry. Where salmon are present,
grizzlies drag carcasses inland, which
fertilizes the landscape. In Yellowstone,
grizzlies prey on young elk; that has
led to a restoration of creekside, lowbranch trees and other vegetation that
supports migratory songbirds.
If the efforts to restore two species—
grizzlies and fishers—are successful,
the North Cascades will support the full
suite of carnivores that existed in preColumbian times. Their presence, by
extension, will enhance the biotas—all
the natural life systems in the park.
Of course, restoring grizzlies does
more than improve the quality of dirt
we hike on. It also restores a kind of
wildness that can’t exist without them.
The Olympics and Cascades each offer
similar gifts: head-spinning biodiversity,
52 BACKPACKER 03.2013
toothy peaks, and lonely meadows if
you know where to look. But when
I’m in the Cascades, equivalent ridges
etch sharper lines and a familiar green
landscape glows with a menace I find
intoxicating. Everything changes with
the possibility, however remote, that I
just missed an old male grizzly digging
up plants around the bend, or that a
sow and two cubs padded through
camp while I slept. As bear researcher
Chris Servheen (see page 54) told
me, bears breed fear, and fear breeds
humility—a humility that makes our
wilderness memories burn brighter.
Myth
Bears are always
afraid of fire.
Tell that to the Arizona black
bear that pulled leftovers out of a
campfire abandoned by two hikers
who watched nervously from afar
as the bruin sifted through the hot
coals. Or Scott Kronberg, a USDA
animal scientist, who startled a grizzy
sow with two cubs a mile up Alaska’s
Castner Glacier. The bear ran at him,
so he lay face down in a small, snowfilled depression. The protective griz
slapped the top of his pack; the force
bounced him nearly a foot off the
ground. The blow was hard enough
to somehow ignite matches in the
pack, which then caught fire. The
griz didn’t immediately run from the
flames. Kronberg played dead until
the bear lost interest and moved
away. Then he extinguished his
burning pack with snow.
To our delight and surprise,
mid-October feels more like August.
It’s warmer than 60°F, and our only
autumnal cues come from the broad
washes of crimsonVaccinium, flameorange mountain ash, purple maple,
and yellow willow that blend and pour
down the mountainside like sessile lava
flows. From our vantage on Easy Ridge,
the wicked black spike of Mt. Shuksan
juts from a thick glacial cloak against a
canvas of perfect blue.
Our first two corrals are nestled in
coniferous islands that cling barnaclelike to those mountain flanks; we
skate down a 30-degree slope of steep
mountain heather to reach them. It’s
not easy, and I can only imagine the
grueling work of setup, when the
crew had to reach these same spots
hunched under 65-pound packs loaded
with 200-foot coils of barbed wire,
cameras, extra batteries, and as much
as 28 pounds of finely aged bear bait. I
smell the corral before I see it, choking
on a heady whiff of pungent fish rot.
On average, 70 percent of corrals
get snags of hair, but after two, we’re
batting 1.000. The second has 17
samples, one of which is a knot of
brown-blond fur with silvered tips that
makes everyone’s pulse jump.
Woodrow tucks it into a barcoded
manila envelope, then sterilizes the
pliers with a lighter before moving on
to the next tuft of fur.
“My theory is: Black until proven
grizzly,” Gaines says. “And it’s
bleached from the sun. But that’s very
interesting. It’s looking pretty grizzled.”
The researchers will get a first crack
at identifying the owner after the trek,
when they check the camera’s memory
cards on a laptop stowed back at
the trailhead. The photos will help
determine which hair samples get sent
to the lab for DNA confirmation.
“Unfortunately, it’s not like CSI,”
says Gaines. “We won’t get DNA
results back until spring.”
Gaines and team remove all traces
of the corral for packing out, and we
cruise up white granite ramps to make
basecamp atop Easy Ridge, pausing
only to tank up at a trickling snowfield.
Gaines, who has spent his summers
since high school lost in these tumbling
ranges, promised the finest views in
the park, but he undersold the vista.
We pitch our tents on a thin spine of
tundra and stone, and spin like dreidels
trying to catch photos of alpenglow
in nearly all directions. Northward,
shark fins cut through a white, green,
and blue sea toward Canada. To the
west, the upturned spade of Mt. Baker
goes apricot behind Shuksan; east, the
apropos bear ears of Whatcom Peak
lean out in front of the massive aqua
Challenger Glacier. South, the sheer
walls of the wild Mineral Creek basin
fade into featureless indigo. We’ll head
there tomorrow on a sunup-to-sunset
tour of the final four corrals.
illustration by MCKIBILLO
BEARS
1. The
Mystery
In the morning, I get just 200
yards before learning that the previous
day was only a warmup. Our off-trail
path to Mineral Creek basin looks bad
enough on paper, but the squinched
contour lines hide canted boulderfields,
pants-ripping thickets of scrubby
firs, and steep chutes carpeted with
mountain heather. As I descend, I learn
to make liberal use of what Richardson
calls the VBS (vegetative belay system),
whereby a fistful of slick needles
and chopstick branches connected
to a shallow root system prevents a
1,000-foot endo of doom. Just as I get
comfortable, we run into a 60-degree
pit to nowhere, and my Elvis leg kicks
in. Gaines sets an anchor on a tree
trunk, and when it’s my turn, I make a
Looney Tunes rappel through crotchthwacking branches and rotten ledges
crusted in lichen. I quickly determine
that mats of fir needles have a
coefficient of friction roughly matching
that of a banana peel—something they
never teach you in climbing school.
Two more of these, and we’re at an
unnamed area Gaines calls Mineral
Pass. It’s a soul-quieting place, an oasis
of trees and meadows only a few
football fields wide, all of it wedged like
a Tetris block between sheer rock walls.
This is one of the wildest places in the
Lower 48, and you can feel the bears
here even if you can’t see them.
“It’s possible nobody visited this
spot before us,” Gaines says.
We collect kinked tangles of dark
bear hair from two more corrals,
following a small creek into an
empty, U-shaped valley lit up with the
commingling colors of summer and fall:
Remnant asters and columbine sprout
in between reddening groundcover.
Mineral Creek pours over a cliff into
the Baker River watershed, perhaps the
most remote area of the wilderness,
and the one place Gaines and team
can’t seem to reach. On the deploy
trip, Woodrow and Gaines skirted
through cliff bands trying to find a
way down, only to get funneled into a
class 5 free climb on broken stone next
to a waterfall. But with light fading,
weather failing, and thousands of feet
of 45-degree VBSing ahead, Gaines let
it go. “It was so tough to get to that
we decided if there’s a bear in there, it
deserves to be left alone,” he says.
After scrambling 2,000 feet back
out of the drainage, we wind past two
placid tarns and round the backside of
Easy Ridge to reach the final corral—
the last hope for finding a grizzly this
year. Located right at treeline, the sky
island of trees overlooks the split veins
of the hyper-wild Baker River and
Picket Creek watersheds, each of them
several days from any trail. The thickly
forested basins peel back to reveal the
Picket Range, a ripsaw ridge of black
gneiss spires with names like Terror,
Fury, and Phantom. Glaciers fill the
crevices between like food caught in
the teeth of some wild beast.
And this corral’s loaded with fur,
too: We’re six for six. Woodrow snaps
a photo as Gaines pulls the last strand
of hair for the project; he feigns misting
up, and in between the smiles, I think
I spy real moisture. Richardson is so
absorbed in the meticulous collecting of
samples she doesn’t notice the punchyou-in-the-face view until takedown.
“You know, this is a bit bittersweet,
a bit melancholy,” Gaines says as
he packs the last envelope. “But
whether we get a grizzly or not,
this is important. When we’re done,
we’ll have one of the largest datasets
of black bear DNA anywhere, and
learning about landscape connectivity
matters for them, too—for all
carnivores. We can learn so much
about bear movements, how they’re
related, how to protect them going
forward.” During the three-year project,
the cameras also caught fleeting
glimpses of wolves and wolverines
expanding beyond their known
territories, plus a Canadian lynx yards
from crossing the Cascade crest—
where they’ve never been detected
before. Biologists all over the world
will pore over this data for decades.
To celebrate survey’s end, we
march 800 feet up a hump of tundra
to summit 6,615-foot Easy Peak, a
king’s seat with a 360-degree view of
the jagged heart of the most rugged
wilderness in the Lower 48. The
summit had a fire lookout until the
1960s, but all that remains is a rusted
stool frame with a flat stone set atop
it for a seat. We each take a turn to sit
alone and let our minds disappear into
the endless zigzag horizon.
Gazing across the snaking valleys,
I can’t help wondering where that
last tribe of grizzlies hides. But I’m
somehow content simply knowing that
they’re probably eating, snuffling, and
preparing to den where they always
have, far from human eyes.
We all spend a long time gazing from
the throne, but Gaines stays the longest.
Finally, he says, “They’re out there.” •
Former BACKPACKER associate editor
Ted Alvarez (@tedster) is managing
editor at grist.org.
Editor’s note The 2012 survey’s motion-sensor cameras didn’t capture any grizzlies
at most of the team’s bear corrals (including the one with the promising blond fur).
However, the cameras malfunctioned at two of the more promising sites, so results
won’t be known until DNA testing is completed in the spring. Regardless, there’s good
news for the ghost bears. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee met shortly after
Gaines’s final trek, and all parties agreed to move forward with the next step toward
grizzly bear recovery: a multi-year Environmental Impact Study, essentially a longterm road map for reaching a healthy grizzly population in the North Cascades.
the maps turn the page to find great bear hikes near you. 