Ghost Grizzlies

Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado?

The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado hold some of the richest grizzly habitat in North America, and in prehistoric times the great bears were ubiquitous there. But by the mid-19th century, killing by ranchers and government trappers had reduced Colorado’s grizzlies to a few shy survivors. In 1952, after a federal trapper killed an adult female north of Pagosa Springs in the south San Juan Mountains, wildlife officials declared the grizzly extinct statewide. Across the next 28 years, many credible grizzly sightings were reported in the San Juans, yet the official word remained: gone.

Then, in 1979, along the Continental Divide south of Pagosa Springs, an “extinct” Colorado grizzly was surprised on its day bed by a bowhunter named Ed Wiseman. The bear, perhaps feeling cornered, attacked. Wiseman was knocked to the ground and severely mauled, but managed to stab and kill the bear with a hand-held arrow.

Through the summers of 1981 and 1982, the Colorado Division of Wildlife conducted an extensive live-trapping operation in hopes of capturing, radio-collaring and releasing any remaining San Juan grizzlies. Failing in this—and in spite of the fact that search leader Tom Beck, a reknowned black bear biologist, stated in his final report that “failure to catch a grizzly does not mean a definite absence of bears”—the state reverted to its traditional “extinct” stance.

Enter writer, film-maker and bear expert Doug “Hayduke” Peacock. In 1990, answering to continued reports of grizzly sightings in the San Juans, Peacock vowed to do what federal and state wildlife agencies could or would not do—prove the existence of a remnant population of native Colorado grizzlies and assure their preservation.

“The importance of this search,” Peacock explains, “has as much to do with the future and quality of Colorado wilderness as it does with trying to prove the existence of a few grizzly bears in the San Juans. At the heart of this project lies an insistence that Colorado’s wildness should command greater respect from those who manage her lands and natural resources.”

Today, six years into Peacock’s investigations and 17 years since the last confirmed Colorado grizzly died, the question remains frustratingly unanswered: Are there, or are there not any grizzlies left in Colorado? If you wish to believe that a few grizzlies still haunt hidden refuges deep and high in the sprawling San Juans, there’s plenty of convincing evidence to support you, with more coming in every summer. But evidence is not proof, and should you choose to believe that the Wiseman grizzly was the dead-last of its breed in Colorado—the end of a multi-millennial occupation—there’s no way that anyone could prove you absolutely wrong.

Believers—such as Peacock, Round River Conservation studies biologist Dennis Sizemore (who directs the search), Colorado Grizzly Project director Jorge Andromidas and many others—maintain that the existence of a remnant Colorado grizzly population has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt, citing hair samples collected by Round River searchers (mostly college students) and identified by an independent forensics laboratory as grizzly; several finds of huge, grizzly-like tracks; two highly credible sightings, including a female with three subadult cubs observed closely with binoculars by rancher Dennis Schutz in 1990 (“I’ve seen hundreds of bears,” he’ll tell you, “and these were definitely grizzlies”), and a large adult that bluff-charged a hiker in 1995; one fuzzy photo of a big blond bear that most experts believe is a grizzly (1993); and other intriguing, albeit inconclusive evidence, including a fresh bear dig, definitively grizzly in conformation, photographed in 1993.

Thus, say Peacock, Andromidas and other champions of Colorado grizzlies and grizzly wilderness, pointing to the Endangered Species Act (itself now endangered), the time has come for responsible management agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife—to quit hiding behind the morally suspect curtain of “no conclusive proof” and take immediate action to protect Colorado’s last few grizzlies and their besieged enclaves. After all, should the existence of a distinct southern Rockies grizzly subspecies be proven, it would be the most critically endangered mammal in North America.

Meanwhile, doubters both within and without the agencies counter that it would be a waste of precious resources of manpower and money to take any protective steps prior to proving conclusively that Colorado has any grizzlies left to protect.

Peacock and his allies would like to see all domestic sheep removed from the core area of public lands where the bears are thought to be holed up (the incessant bleating of sheep attracts predators from miles around, and many sheepmen shoot predators on sight, legal or not). Second, they say, place a moratorium on black bear hunting in that same small area (at a distance, it’s hard enough for experts to discern between grizzly and black bear, and few hunters are experts). Third, firmly advise hunters and other forest users of the likely presence of grizzlies, the penalties both legal and moral for killing on or causing one to be killed, and techniques of conflict avoidance. Fourth, intensify and accelerate efforts to prove or debunk the grizzly’s existence in the San Juans. If it turns out the bears are mere ghosts of the collective local imagination, all protective restrictions can then be rescinded.

But even if a handful of native Colorado grizzlies are proven to exist, what about inbreeding? Aren’t the survivors genetically doomed no matter what? Probably, but not absolutely. Biologist Sizemore explains that although no one really knows at what point an island population of grizzlies will genetically “collapse” due to inbreeding, observable evidence suggests that the big carnivores are far more resistant to genetic starvation than most other species. Doug Peacock echoes that there have been so few grizzlies in Colorado for so long now that the Wiseman bear surely was the product of several generations of increasingly narrow inbreeding, yet her physical remains are normal in every way. She was fertile, had bred, given birth and nursed young, and survived to the very ripe grizzly age of 20-something.

But arguing about such hypotheticals as population dynamics at this juncture, Peacock concludes, is dangerously premature and ultimately immoral. If we don’t act now to save the last few survivors, he says, all other considerations will soon be rendered moot.