Wrapped around a stand of trees, knee-high barbed wire protects a fish guts and road kill concoction poured on top of a foot-high pile of sticks. Cameras trained on the spot contain pictures of the carnivores attracted to the stink: bears.
When Bill Gaines, a biologist from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in the Cascade Mountains, returns to the location after two weeks, he’ll take the memory cards and hair samples left by black bears, prevalent in the area, or grizzly bears, the likes of which haven’t been confirmed in the Cascades since 1996. DNA could be extracted from some of the hair, proving that the big brown bears lumber through that land.
“One of the major objectives of the effort is to try to capture DNA from a grizzly bear here in the Cascades. Then we can get a handle on if they are still here, where are they, and who are they related to off of the gene work,” says Gaines, who has been working on grizzly bear recovery efforts in the area for more than 20 years.
The Cascades are one of six federally designated zones where grizzly bear recovery efforts are ongoing. Years of hunting and trapping led the grizzly population in the area to plummet, and since the bears mature slowly, it can take a while for the numbers to creep back up. Gaines says that there could be a handful of grizzlies in the region that wander back and forth over the Canadian border.
Thirteen years ago, wildlife managers decided to conduct an environmental review to find the best way to bolster the endangered species’ population in the Cascades, but the underfunded U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never set aside the money needed for the project.
Wolverines, Canada lynx, and gray wolves are just a few of the predators within the ecosystem that are making a comeback, giving Gaines hope that if there are grizzly bears there, their populations could rebound even without the review and resulting actions. “Honestly there are very few places in the lower 48 states where you have an option of recovering grizzly bears,” he says. Those species all need some of the same kind of wildness, he says, which bodes well for the full compliment of carnivores.
The DNA results that could prove whether grizzly bears visited the test sites won’t be in until this spring. Whether or not their hair caught on the barbs this year, Gaines hopes to continue catching samples. “One of the critical questions that we’re going to have to look at is if we’re augmenting an existing population or if we’re starting from scratch,” he says. “We’re going to keep systematically looking in the right places hopefully over the next few years and we’ll go from there.”