Dave (far right) during a recent trip with "citizen scientists" to collect hair samples from grizzly bears in Montana.

Defenders’ David Gaillard Goes Lookin’ for Grizzly Bears

Spend a weekend in the Centennial Mountains looking for hairs from a grizzly bear? Talk about a needle in a haystack! Yet after a conversation with a biologist friend who recently appeared in the newspaper using the same technique to document grizzly bears in the mountains south of Bozeman, Montana where I live, I decided I had to give it a try (an excuse to get out of the office and enjoy the end of Montana’s fleeting summer did not hurt!).

Friday evening we met at a local supermarket where we got final supplies and packed into the rental cars for a 3-hour drive.  As twilight fell, a pair of sandhill cranes ghosted above us  indicating we had arrived in the Centennial Valley home of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  Sleeping under the stars for the next two nights and hiking all day long made for a full weekend and darned if we did not find and collect quite a lot of hairs, though it will be months before we know if any came from a grizzly bear.  Read on to learn how we did so, and be sure to check out my homemade video of the experience as well—cheers all!

—Dave Gaillard, Rocky Mountain Region Representative.

Background:

The Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, in part because it is isolated from grizzly bear populations elsewhere in North America.  The Centennial Mountains along the Continental Divide that divides Montana and Idaho west of Yellowstone National Park is at the western frontier of the Yellowstone grizzly bear’s current range.  It also provides one of the best hopes to re-connect the Yellowstone grizzly bear with other populations in western Montana and Idaho, because of its east-west axis that is rare in the Rockies, which predominantly run north and south.  Documentation of grizzly bear use in the Centennial Mountains will help managers maintain this area for grizzly bears, when making decisions about livestock grazing, timber sales and other land use activities (this area is largely public land dmanaged by agencies that include the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Ordinary citizens with an interest in grizzly bear conservation and the ability to live and hike through remote, rugged country can gather reliable scientific data to document the use of an area by grizzly bears.  Powerful new genetic analysis make it possible to confirm presence of a grizzly bear from a sample of their scat (droppings), or even a small tuft of their hair.  Grizzly bear hair is remarkably easy to find once you know what to look for, given that bears like to rub against trees and fences for a good scratch, and possibly to leave a scent mark to communicate with other bears.

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