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Ghost Grizzlies? Still today?


Blog Last Updated; 4/13/2009

The San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado comprise some of the richest potential grizzly habitat in all of North American. Appropriately, in prehistoric times, the largest omnivore our continent has ever known, and the largest predator to have survived the final faunal meltdown of the icy Pleistocene, was abundant throughout the region. To the San Juan's resident Southern Ute natives, the grizzly was the mother of all creation, a powerful and benevolent spirit that's honored still today in the annual Bear Dance ceremony, which is both a celebration of spring renewal and a matchmaking occasion for young Ute women and men. Perhaps because the Indians lacked firearms with which to dominate nature, they learned to get along, even with the grizzly.

White explorers and settlers felt no such spiritual connections to nature, and they did have the firepower. Consequently, by early in the 20th century, ranchers, hunters and federal trappers had reduced Colorado's grizzlies to a few shy survivors, more like black bears than Grizz in behavior. In a majority of local and bureaucratic minds, the grizzly was dead and gone; the wilderness had been rendered safe for human occupation and commercial exploitation. Then, in September of 1951, a federal trapper used a cyanide set-gun to end the brief career of a sheep-killing young male grizzly north of Pagosa Springs, up along the Continental Divide within today's Weminuche Wilderness, in a grassy subalpine park called Starvation Gulch. The trapper was a local character named Ernie Wilkinson, today in his eightties. Recalling the event for me, Wilkinson said he had been as surprised as everyone else to learn that his victim was a grizzly.
One bright July morning nearly half a century since he last had been there, Ernie guided me to the place where the drama had played out. Evidencing no guilt, this soft-spoken, gentle-mannered man explained that "Back then, nobody even thought about there still being grizzlies around. America was busy recovering from World War II and the livestock industry was important. It was my job to help protect that industry."
In an irony of synchronicity, just a month before Ernie killed his accidental Grizz, a near-twin had been shot by a sheepherder near Blue Lake, eighty miles to the south of Starvation Gulch, within what today is the South San Juan Wilderness Area. Tragedies seem to come in threes and precisely one year later, in September of 1952, in the same general vicinity, yet a third sheep-killing grizzly this time an adult female with two subadult cubs was eliminated by another federal trapper. Even though both big cubs got away clean, Colorado wildlife officials inexplicably chose that moment to declare the grizzly extinct statewide . . . even as they quietly hired a researcher to comb the San Juans for evidence of more survivors. Across the next 28 years, many credible grizzly sightings were reported, in both the San Juans and the adjacent South San Juans. Yet the official word remained: gone.
And so it went, until September 23, 1979, when the latest in the litany of so-called "last" Colorado grizzlies turned up ? again in the South San Juans, and again good and dead. But not, this time, without a fight.
On that star-crossed autumn day, a local hunting outfitter named Ed Wiseman was guiding a Kansas bowhunter, seeking elk, when the two men became separated and Wiseman surprised a bear along the rim of the headwaters canyon of the upper Navajo River. The bear attacked. Wiseman was knocked to the ground and severely mauled but managed to stab and kill the bear with a hand-held arrow from his quiver. Although federal investigators suspected the man had shot the bear first, thus provoking the attack, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the case after Wiseman passed a lie-detector test and no credible evidence could be mounted against him. The bear, an old female with broken and worn-down teeth, massive abscesses and extensive arthritis, was estimated to weigh 350 to 400 pounds, not large by grizzly standards, but hardly stunted either. As I had done with Ernie Wilkinson, I cajoled Ed Wiseman to lead me to the remote setting where his fight had taken place. And there, in what for him remains a spooky spot, while I sat on the log where his bear had died, Ed recalled for me his story.
As an upshot of the Wiseman incident, through the summers of 1981 and '82, the Colorado Division of Wildlife assigned black bear biologist Tom Beck to conduct an extensive baiting and leg-snaring study in hopes of capturing, radio collaring, releasing and radio-tracking any remaining San Juan grizzlies. To compensate for his lack of grizzly experience, Beck "high-graded" four expert field hands from the Montana and Wyoming grizzly research teams of Charles Jonkel and Richard Knight. While the searchers failed to catch a grizzly, they did turn up several bits of intriguing evidence including a confirmed grizzly den that had likely been dug by the Wiseman bear, along with several confirmed grizzly digs of indeterminate ages suggesting but not confirming the possibility of more survivors. Accordingly, Tom Beck stated in his final report that "Failure to catch a grizzly does not mean a definite absence of bears." Beck concluded that the wisest official stance would be to assume that a few bears remain and thus to reduce their primary threats sheep grazing and black bear hunting in a relatively small area of likely core habitat. Ignoring its own expert's advice, the state reverted again to its traditional "extinct" public stance, though this time with the prefix "probably" and advisories to trigger-happy bear hunters and predator-phobic ranchers that killing a grizzly in Colorado is a federal felony.
And so it is that still today, 30 years since the last confirmed Colorado grizzly died, the question remains frustratingly unanswered: Are there, or are there not a last few grizzlies left in southwest Colorado? Believers maintain that the existence of a remnant population has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, citing hair samples collected by an independent team of searchers and identified by an independent forensics laboratory in Wyoming as grizzly (doubters point out that the hairs could have been planted); several finds of huge, grizzly-like tracks (though none have been cast or convincingly photographed); and two seemingly credible first-person sightings, including a female with three subadult cubs observed for half an hour from just eighty yards with binoculars by a highly respected local ranchman, back in 1990. "I've seen hundreds of bears," Dennis Schutz told me when we revisited the scene, "and these were definitely grizzlies." Then, in the summer of 1995, a large adult bear bluff-charged an experienced and wholly credible bear photographer near where the Wiseman bear had died. He swore it was a grizzly, no holes appeared in his story after intense investigation, and the location was perfect.
In my travels and presentations on all the above, a question often asked is this: Even if a handful of native Colorado grizzlies were proven to exist, what about inbreeding? Aren't the survivors so few as to be genetically doomed?
Eventually, yes, though perhaps not just yet.
No one really knows at what point an island population of grizzlies will genetically collapse from inbreeding, though observable evidence in Europe and Asia suggests that the big carnivores are remarkably, perhaps uniquely, resistant to genetic starvation. This belief is reinforced by the fact that there had been so few grizzlies in Colorado for so long, the Wiseman bear must have been the product of multiple generations of increasingly narrow inbreeding. Yet her physical remains are normal in every way, save the skeletal ravages of age.
And here's the closing kicker: The Wiseman sow had nursed cubs, offspring which, if they lived to adulthood, hiding as successfully as had their mother, could have produced yet another generation of cubs that could still be around today.
So, next time you head into our beloved San Juans for a few days of wilderness hiking and camping, give this all some thought and see if you don't agree that even the remote possibility that a ghostly grizzly or two could be lurking around makes the nights darker, the stars brighter, your campfire more reassuring and the whole outdoor experience infinitely richer. As Aldo Leopold pointed out, a mountain without a grizzly on it well, it's just a mountain.
 
The recently released third edition of David Petersen's now-classic Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado? (www.davidpetersenbooks.com) sports a new cover, 12 new pages of inside photos, and revisions throughout.

 


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