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."
But biology is never the only consideration, especially when it comes to a controversial species like the grizzly bear. Some folks will never want a large, unpredictable carnivore in their backyard. Ranchers could do without another predator eyeing their livestock, and recreationists worry about trail closures. Safety concerns, however exaggerated, are only made worse by bear attacks; this summer, grizzlies in Yellowstone killed two hikers, the first fatal maulings there since 1986.
"Grizzly bears carry a lot of political baggage," says Fitkin, especially in the Northwest, where people aren't used to them. In 1993, at an infamous public meeting in conservative Okanogan County on the east side of the Cascades, an elderly woman spat on Doug Zimmer, Fish and Wildlife information and education supervisor, before the meeting even started. By the end of the meeting, he'd received nine death threats, according to Knibb's Grizzly Wars.
Even within the state wildlife agency, managers were reluctant to get behind the effort. In 1995, the state Legislature passed an outright ban on bringing grizzlies in from other states to help the Cascades — a mostly symbolic gesture that can't stop federal recovery work, but would keep state biologists like Fitkin on the sidelines.
That same year, the anti-bear political climate likely killed a chance to get money for an EIS. Fish and Wildlife had funding available to study recovery in either the Cascades or the Bitterroot recovery area on the Montana-Idaho border, which had no grizzlies, but lies closer to other populations. With much stronger political support for the Bitterroot, the agency diverted funds from the Cascades and finished an EIS to reintroduce bears, only to be shut down when President Bush took office.
Since then, however, opposition from a vocal minority in the Cascades seems to have faded. Public outreach efforts have built a strong base of public support; a 2005 survey by the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project found 86 percent of rural residents west of the recovery zone supported grizzly bear preservation.
But money has been harder to come by. Grizzlies must compete with many other imperiled species; in the Northwest that includes salmon and spotted owls, plus hundreds of endangered species in Hawaii that are funded from the same federal pot. (See infographic)
Though federal funding has tightened over the past decade, the state of Washington stepped up in 2007, when the Legislature offered almost half a million dollars for a Cascades grizzly EIS. That money was matched by another $250,000 from the nonprofit Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, which funds cross-border conservation efforts. But the feds balked. The grizzly recovery office in Missoula could offer only staff time; another critical player, Fish and Wildlife's Region 1 headquarters in Portland, was silent. Agency officials say they didn't ask for grizzly funding because the Washington state office couldn't afford to take it on. The state money, unused, went back to the coffers.
In 2009, Washington Congressman Rick Larsen requested $1 million for grizzly recovery in a federal budget request; that too was ignored in D.C.
"There was a lot of political capital spent to raise that money and nothing came of it," says Scott. "It's a shame."
Chris Servheen is the only grizzly bear recovery coordinator the Fish and Wildlife Service has ever had. His office in Missoula, Mont., is about 10 miles from the border of the Northern Continental Divide recovery area, the country's largest. The Bitterroot recovery area is 20 miles southwest, and Yellowstone is 300 miles southeast. The North Cascades are 400 miles and two states away.
Servheen has been widely recognized for his central role in recovering grizzly bears in the West. When he started his career in 1981, fewer than 200 grizzlies remained in Yellowstone; today, there are 600. With that success, in 2007, his agency removed Yellowstone grizzlies from the endangered species list, only to be sued by environmental groups. In 2009, environmentalists won: A federal court found there were too few protections in place to hand management to the states, and the agency underestimated the potential impact of declining whitebark pines, whose nuts are a major food source for grizzlies. The agency appealed in 2010; the court has yet to decide.
Servheen says delisting Yellowstone grizzlies could free up resources for more threatened populations like those in the Cascades and Selkirks, but litigation is slowing the process, eating up 40-60 percent of his staff's time. It's "a grand waste of recovery money and time, and a net loss to all grizzly bears," he says.
"If the FWS were doing their job, there wouldn't be so much litigation," responds Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups challenging the delisting. "The conservation community has won most of the litigation brought on grizzly bears. That should tell you something."
But Willcox is sympathetic to the agency's financial bind. "Litigation is a result of the agencies not doing their job, and they are not doing their job in part because they don't have the money. It's kind of this vicious cycle. The real answer is that this agency is incredibly underfunded."
Servheen agrees that it all comes down to resources. "If you put money in the North Cascades right now, it will have to come out of someone else's pocket," he says, and that could compromise the hard-earned progress in the Rockies. "The big issue is not cutting this really small pie into pieces," he says. "The big issue is trying to make the pie bigger."
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 originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2011 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).