Life is Wild Where the Wildlife Roam
Photo by Donald M. Jones/Great Gray Imagery
By Dennis Nicholls
"Still, after all is said, the man should have a thoroughly trustworthy weapon and a fairly cool head, who would follow into his own haunts and slay grim Old Ephraim."
-- Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, 1885
Cloudless and blue. That was all that needed saying about the sky over Montana that mid-July day in 1991. I briskly paced myself up the mountainside through a clearcut, making a beeline for a patch of timber atop B Peak high in the Vermilion River country east of Trout Creek. The resulting open terrain brought on huckleberries year after year. And they were just ripening.
That put me on guard, because I knew if I paused for even a moment, I'd end up picking and eating berries the rest of the afternoon rather than finishing up the day's work doing timber inventory for the Forest Service. I also knew that bears love huckleberries almost as much as I do -- well, let's be honest; way more than I do, because it is the staple in their diet that time of the year. And they would undoubtedly be in the vicinity.
On the ridgeline at 6,000 feet, a patch of decadent lodgepole pine and subalpine fir had withstood the elemental ravages of the high country. That was my destination for a survey plot. I entered the woods just below the crest of the ridge, concentrating on my pacing so as to be precise in locating plot center. A thicket of alder 20 yards ahead and to my right obscured the ridgetop, but caught my attention when subtle sounds and motion disturbed the warm stillness.
Then my heart jumped into my throat, my guts sank into my legs and my eyes bugged out of their sockets. A large grizzly bear rushed from the thicket, looked long and hard at the puny human cowering before it in petrified fear, and seemed to consider whether it should attack and dispatch me now, or toy with my misery before raking its claws and teeth through my flimsy hide.
Fortunately, neither happened. The eternal moment of fright snapped when the bruin darted up the ridge and out of sight. I collapsed in a quivering puddle of exhausted relief and snatched a handful of nearby huckleberries to quench the cottony dryness that had suddenly engulfed my mouth.
One hundred and fifteen years ago, future U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and other hardened outdoorsmen hunted grizzly bears (Ursus horibilus) in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming and on the prairies and among the breaks of eastern Montana. Roosevelt's reference to "Old Ephraim" was attributed as a name that cagey mountain men had given the giant bruin. Stories preserved through time recount men killing five, 10 or 20 bears in a year, or more. They were once trapped, poisoned and slaughtered as vermin.
With that history, it's no wonder the mighty bruin teeters on the brink of extinction at the start of the 21st century. Today, there are no grizzlies in the Black Hills nor on the eastern prairies. Where grizzlies do roam within the mountains, it is a rare thing indeed to see one.
In little over 100 years, grizzly bears have disappeared from 95 percent of their former range in the continental United States. They remain in just five fragmented ecosystems identified as "grizzly bear recovery zones" since the bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. A sixth recovery zone has been identified almost entirely within the state -- the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness -- but no one has yet proved that any grizzlies remain in what is the largest tract of undeveloped wilderness south of Canada.
In the Idaho Panhandle and western Montana, two of the recovery areas embrace the rugged backcountry of our most prominent mountain ranges. The Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem straddles the Idaho-Montana border from British Columbia south to the Clark Fork River. West of there, the granitic uplands of the Selkirk Mountains harbor grizzlies between the Kootenai and Pend Oreille rivers south nearly to Sandpoint.
On May 17, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a finding in the Federal Register that concluded the Selkirk grizzly bear population warranted endangered status, placing it next to a similar finding for the Cabinet-Yaak population published seven years ago. Both populations, USFWS officials contend, are in danger of localized extinction due to habitat alteration, human intrusion into critical grizzly territory and isolation of these animals from other larger populations of bears.
Wayne Wakkinen, a grizzly bear researcher with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game based in Bonners Ferry, estimates the population of grizzlies in the U.S. and Canadian Selkirks at 50 to 60 bears; the Cabinet and Purcell Mountains of the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem are thought to have 30 to 40 bears. If there are as many as 100 grizzlies within the 4,500 square miles of the Selkirk-Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem, then on average, each 50 square miles could contain a single grizzly.
Reproductive success among the grizzlies of this region is also troubling. Reports state that no females with cubs of the year were sighted in the Cabinet-Yaak portion of the recovery zone in 1998. Only one female had a cub of the year in the Selkirks that same year. From 1993 to 1998, females with cubs of the year averaged 1.33 per year in the Cabinet-Yaak and one in the Selkirks. The recovery plan requires six females with cubs of the year per year be present in each portion of the recovery zone before the grizzly could be "delisted" and assured a reasonable chance to survive in this area.
However, Wakkinen explains that the real trouble with grizzlies in the Selkirks and Cabinets isn't reproduction. It's bears dying.
"The reproduction end is not the problem," he said. "Mortality is."
Worldwide, it is estimated that 125,000 to 150,000 grizzly, or brown, bears, remain in the wild. Perhaps as much as 75 percent of them still roam the coniferous forests of Eurasia; those countries that once comprised the former Soviet Union. Less than 1 percent can be found within the six recovery zones harboring the last remaining grizzlies in America outside Alaska.
Today, Teddy Roosevelt and perhaps four or five of his hunting buddies could hunt "Old Ephraim" out of existence in the Selkirks and Cabinets by the end of this year. That's how tenuous the future of the grizzly bear is in north Idaho and adjacent Montana and Washington.
But Wayne Wakkinen is optimistic. "We have a slowly expanding population. We're not at recovery levels, but we're headed in the right direction."
Dennis Nicholls is the publisher of The River Journal. He lives in Noxon, Mont.
For more information on grizzly bears, a good book to read is Yaak, Mont., author Rick Bass' The Lost Grizzlies. The following websites also provide reams of information: