Backstory: On the trail of an icon

A scary walk in the Tetons with grizzly bear researchers.

It seems clear from the start this is not going to be a simple hands-in-the-pocket hike in the woods. At least not for me. As we unload our backpacks on an aluminum-gray day, an elk hunter warns us of a grizzly bear lurking in the willows up the trail. It is feeding on a carcass and, as everyone in the group knows, a grizzly dining on elk meat doesn't like uninvited guests. The bear had lunged at a hunter on horseback earlier this morning.

It's no surprise that we're in the company of bears. I'm tagging along with Shannon Podruzny, an ecologist who studies grizzlies, and her team of researchers. They're heading into the woods to unlock more of the mysteries of one of the most fascinating and fearsome animals on earth. The idea is to study the grizzly's habitat, its diet and daybeds, but not to encounter the big bruins: The researchers don't like to disrupt the bears, nor, for that matter, their own actuarial tables.

The rules of the woods, however, don't always conform to human planning, and before long I'm taking out my pepper spray, the only protection these researchers carry, from its velcro holster. I do this as another hunter, just up the trail, warns us a second time of the grizzly in the willows. He tells of a hunter mauled last year: The bear was on him so fast he didn't have time to raise his gun. Bravely, I walk closer to Ms. Podruzny.

I'm interested in joining the bearologists to find out more about the science of the Yellowstone grizzly, arguably the most studied bear in the world. Podruzny's crew is part of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), a collection of scientists from state and federal agencies that for more than 30 years has been probing grizzly culture - everything from the bruin's habits to its haute woods cuisine. They survey the bears from the skies, shoot electrical currents through their bodies to measure fat content, and study their feces in CSI detail. They've probed the mercury content of bear fur, plumbed the genetics of the cutworm moth (a grizzly can eat 20,000 of them a day), and catalogued the decline of the white bark pine, whose seeds are a major food source.

"It is a species that there has been a lot of money spent on," says Charles Schwartz, who oversees the IGBST. "Wilderness isn't wilderness without grizzlies."

I was also interested in shadowing some bearologists because the clues they're unearthing may now be more important than ever. In a controversial move, the Bush administration announced it is taking steps to remove grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area from the Endangered Species List. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency drafting a delisting proposal, believes the population has recovered to the point that it no longer needs to be classified as "threatened." The plan is open for public comment, after which a final decision will be made.

Few dispute the success of the grizzly turnaround. In the 1970s, 200 roamed the lodgepole pine of greater Yellowstone; an estimated 600 do now. "We've got bears in places we haven't seen bears for decades," says Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, which considers the grizzly recovery an über example of Endangered Species Act success. The revival is considered all the more impressive because the grizzly is so difficult to manage. Its reproduction rate is slow, and its aggressive nature - and fencing-saber claws - create problems that, say, a snail darter wouldn't. "People don't fear an increase in bald eagles," says Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "They certainly fear an increase in grizzlies."

Yet the painstaking work to get the grizzly this far, coupled with what some consider its still- tenuous hold on survival, makes delisting contentious. Critics don't trust the administration to follow through on a post-recovery plan to monitor and manage the bears. They worry about the grizzlies' vulnerability outside a designated conservation area, where bears encounter hunters, ranchers, and suburban garbage cans.

"This is the grizzly bear's last stand," says Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's wild bear project. "We shouldn't be taking chances with an animal that is an icon and symbol of the West."

* * *

But here, 7,000 feet up in the pine and huckleberry of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the talk is about bear scat and "No. 399," the grizzly we're tracking, not politics and policy. Late fall clouds cling to the serrated caps of the Tetons. On the trail, Podruzny is quiet and methodical - a Nancy Drew in hiking boots and Marmont gear.

We navigate the willows without having to file a life insurance claim and head toward a site where "399," a female, lingered days ago. Locating a spot in the woods where a bear has spent time would seem like trying to find a huckleberry in a haystack. It isn't. The day before, one of Podruzny's team flew over the area and picked up signals from the bears' radio collars, which were uploaded to a laptop. From this, the team created maps showing where they had tarried the past 10 days. Now, Podruzny checks a hand-held global-positioning device to pinpoint the locations.

"We've got carcass!" shouts researcher Meghan Riley, moments later. The grizzly had visited one site several times, picking over elk remains. For an hour, Podruzny and Ms. Riley scour the area with forensic fastidiousness. They catalogue the forest canopy, measure the diameter of trees, and detail ground cover every 10 centimeters. They collect scat to be later dried, rehydrated, and run through a sieve to see what the bear eats. "This is a pretty good find," says Podruzny.

"399" is one of 11 bears the team is shadowing this week. Podruzny knows some as well as dinner guests. No. 22030 is a Martha Stewart of the forest: She likes cozy daybeds. "399" is considered big (7 feet tall, 350 pounds) and scrappy for a female. She's neither shy around people nor, apparently, other bears: Her collar was ripped off in a fight. One focus of the research, appropriately, is how bears get along. This stretch of wilderness was the province of black bears 30 years ago. As grizzlies move in, will it be coexistence or collision?

Moments later, three other team members arrive at our site. They've been tracking "398," a big male grizzly, and picked up a signal that suggests "399" is near us. "We're surrounded by grizzlies," researcher Andrew Sorensen says excitedly. Jocelyn Akins, a volunteer, echoes the sentiment: "This is party town!"

I don't pull out a kazoo. I scan the bushes, my thumb on the pepper spray. We head off to inspect several other "399" sites. Podruzny bypasses one near the willows so we can "go back with our scalps intact." No protest from me. As we hike out, though, we suddenly hear a rustle in the grass behind us. Then thumping ....

Thursday: Chapter 2, if there is one.

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