Friends of the Bitterroot

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Bitteroot Mountains
Bitterroot Mountains
Bitteroot Mountains
Bitterroot Mountains



The Selway Grizzly Search project began in 1999 as an effort to perform due diligence in documenting the presence of any grizzly bears in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has declared grizzly bears to be absent in the area. We believe the agency did not use due diligence in its determination. The moral duty to protect an endangered species is our primary motivation. Respect for each individual is essential. Political implications and difficulties in accurately guessing the best interests of grizzly bears complicate the issue. It is a tough call to decide that the need for documenting a grizzly bear outweighs the benefits of privacy for that bear. The call is easier to make if that grizzly stands to lose protection because its presence is not known. Knowing the truth on the ground seems necessary for any good grizzly recovery plan.

Six conservation organizations working to promote the CBA recovery alternative decided to search for grizzlies in the recovery area and formed the Great Grizzly Search project.

Two approaches were discussed, aerial den search and bait station / hair snag search. The Great Grizzly Search group decided to pursue the hair snag approach and to put off the aerial search. Not wanting to lose a year, Friends of the Bitterroot launched the aerial search in April of 1999 with limited funds raised independently. Again in 2000 the Great Grizzly Search group decided not to fund the aerial search. Friends of the Bitterroot again raised money and, for fundraising purposes, distinguished the aerial search as the Selway Grizzly Search, a part of and different than the hair snag Great Grizzly Search.


Den search may offer an advantageous and relatively efficient approach to determining presence of grizzly bears. Importantly, this approach is quite non-intrusive. The purpose of documenting any resident grizzly bears in the Bitterroot ecosystem is not simply for scientific information but is a timely effort to maintain their protection on the eve of impending downgrading of status to 'experimental/ non-essential'.

A basic premise of our search approach is that observations in areas where black bears and grizzly bears co-exist have found that grizzly bears generally take the higher ground for denning. Black bears thrive in the Selway and would be intermingled with any present grizzlies during most of the year. This behavioral separation at denning time offers an opportunity to focus the search. Sampling higher elevation dens for DNA identification of hair or scat could reveal presence of grizzlies with significantly fewer samples. Further, high elevation denning habitat is far smaller in total area and more concentrated than feeding habitat, thus considerably narrowing the area to be searched. The efficiency of the search is enhanced both by the bear separation behavior at denning and the concentration of den habitat.

Importantly, dens offer a sampling situation where results can be replicated more easily than hair snagging, camera documentation or other approaches. This approach accommodates the safe assumption that agency officials will discount results from a citizen search unless and until they are pressured (media component of project) into doing the necessary testing and can replicate results themselves. The USFWS has a vested interest in their 'experimental / non-essential' plan and seem to not want any uncollared grizzly bear upsetting their program. The den search approach does not require a permit, thereby avoiding agency manipulation.


Using a profile of grizzly bear denning habitat observed elsewhere, we mapped suitable areas in the Selway. In this area with high ridges around 7,000 we use an elevation criteria of about 6,400 feet and above and we focus mainly on N and NE exposures. When bear tracks are spotted from the plane we take a GPS reading and photographs. Photos are taken at varying distances in order to place the tracks with local distinguishing features, such as rocks, snags or trees, and other photos placing that site photo into various landscape photos. A written log is recorded as photos are taken. We write notes describing the evidence and evaluate the probability of finding a den. Experience has shown GPS alone to be undependable in locating the site because of plane speed and operator error. The photo interpretation and map work needed to put a point on a map that accurately locates the site can be very intense and time consuming. Even with good photo coverage and accurate map location it can be very difficult to find the spot later on the ground. Things look very different seen from the ground with ten feet or more of snow gone.

The usefulness of a track set can vary a lot. Evaluation of the probability of finding a den based on the evidence at hand is a judgement call that can require a lot of guesswork. A track contouring a slope with no observed beginning or end is probably not worth following up. Observation of an end to a track can vary in reliability. Was it clear that no tracks could remain hidden or had melted? Which way was the bear going? Was it leaving a den site or entering an occupied rest stop? A track with two visible ends is a rare and useful find. Some sites show multiple intersecting tracks. A hub with spokes of tracks is something to look for. And then, of course seeing the den from the air is the ultimate in this aerial search, discounting seeing the bear itself because that would be disconcertingly intrusive.

Rapid response is ideal, but caution needs to be used to be sure bears have left the den. Following up promising leads on the ground is far more productive when tracks are still on the snow. Tracks melt more or less quickly and can get buried by snow unexpectedly and quickly. The area is big wilderness and the bear sign is remote. Snow season hazards include avalanche danger and swollen creeks to cross. Snow season benefits include crossing snow covered brush thickets with ease and the ability to keep eyes up on the scene instead of down at your feet. It is also possible to learn much about what bears in the area are up to by easily following their tracks.

In summer those spring photos from the vantage of the air are invaluable, but often not at all straightforward to decipher. A wide, open snowfield may cover a forest of saplings. The area where the tracks emerged from a hole in a snowfield probably turns out to be an expansive boulder field. There can be so many possible den sites in a good sized boulder field, let alone a cirque, that time may not permit a thorough search. A miss is as good as a mile; I am certain we have been close and not found the den several times. Summer seasonal hazards include bountiful brushfields and bugs. Benefits include browsing huckleberries. Also, bear trees, peeled for food or worn by rubbing, over-turned rocks, shredded stumps and logs, day beds, anthill excavation, rooting and digging are bear sign buried by snow but accessible in summer.

There is still a challenge to meet even after spotting a good lead from the air and then finding the den. It can be quite difficult to find hair in a den due to poor light conditions and sometimes the presence of much fibrous, hair-like material used as bedding.


Over the five springs of this search we have found 46 sets of bear tracks that were potentially useful in finding a den (discounting about 15% that were seen to be bear tracks but weren't considered useful.) We are beginning to see clusters of denning activity. We have sampled one den with inconclusive results, and will resample it. At least one more den should be found and sampled this coming summer.

We have learned that the Selway bears range widely at den emergence time. They walk up to the top of peaks covered with fifteen feet of snow just to go back around to where they were. They go up and over passes. When the snow is set firm bears get around more easily and probably have to range farther to find food than at other seasons. The bears will visit tree wells and eat whortleberry bushes on their way through high country covered in snow. They also check out melt holes around boulder fields, probably looking for rodents to eat. Winterkill carcasses can lead a bear over a mountain. In one case we saw where a bear actually got air going over a cornice going up and over a steep pass on the way toward an elk herd gathered far below at a natural salt lick. It was too early for afterbirth but maybe the bear was just getting into position.

After five years of observations certain patterns are emerging. It is becoming evident that bear denning is more common in certain areas and rare in topographically similar areas. Fall food availability may well explain some den area preference. Snowmobile trespass may cause avoidance of the best den habitat in the Great Burn area.

The US Fish and Wildlife's 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery plan recognized the critical need to establish a third major breeding population of grizzly bears. The Selway Bitterroot area of central Idaho/western Montana offers the necessary extensive wildland core. It also offers connectivity, by relatively intact wildland corridors, to the existing two major breeding populations in the Yellowstone ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. In 1997 the USFWS put various alternatives for a Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery plan before the public in the NEPA process. A coalition of conservation groups formed to advocate the citizen developed Conservation Biology Alternative (CBA). It became clear early on that, because of political pressure, the USFWS would chose as their preferred alternative to "reintroduce" grizzly bears into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness of Central Idaho / Western Montana and designate Selway grizzly bears as 'experimental / non-essential'.

The 'reintroduction' assumes no grizzlies are there. The designation 'experimental / non-essential' is allowable only in areas without an existing population and geographically separate from any areas with a population of the species proposed for recovery. The level of protection, particularly protection of habitat, is reduced from that offered threatened and endangered species. Any grizzlies naturally present in the area would wake up 'experimental / non-essential' once 'government grizzlies' were introduced.

Any such individual grizzly deserves, morally and legally, the highest possible protection. If grizzlies are there they are very good at avoiding humans. It is in our self-interest that their successful behavior adaptations are passed on to their young or to other grizzlies entering the population.

The veracity of the assumption that grizzly bears are absent in the area proposed for 'experimental, non-essential' designation has not been given a hard look. The most recent agency study was completed in 1991. It was a remote camera survey with short duration and sparse data points. It does not represent a state-of-the art approach. The USFWS is using (and bragging about) hair snagging research going on in every known or suspected US grizzly population except the Bitterroot. Given the importance of the presence / absence issue on the Bitterroot one wonders why this is the case. The USFWS has discounted many credible reported sightings over the years without follow up. It is clear that the agency has not been diligent in determining the truth on the ground.