Bushwhacking for Conservation

Bushwhacking for Conservation

Conservation Northwest / Nov 21, 2018 / Wildlife Monitoring

The search for grizzly bears in the North Cascades through monitoring cameras, backcountry navigation and volunteer dedication.

By Peter loft and jack mcleod, citizen wildlife monitoring project volunteers

Sweating, swatting flies and inspecting scrapes, I watch my buddy slip off the massive, moss-covered boulder and disappear into eight-foot-high devil’s club—the most aptly-named plant in the Cascades, with every inch covered in thorns.

Peter Loft checks out a cold, deep, river crossing—or a potential swimming hole. Photo: Jack McLeod

I watch the devil’s club rustle as he works his way toward our goal: a small, meadow-like clearing to set up a remote camera. We’re looking for “Uncle Grizz”. The Great Bear. Ursus arctos. Once numbering in the thousands, fewer than ten probably remain in the North Cascades. We are in this remote area volunteering for Conservation Northwest’s Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.

Progress toward the clearing is slow as I catch glimpses of his red backpack moving deliberately through the brush. “Boy, are we idiots,” I think, reflecting on the scrapes, scratches and arguments over which way to go in this wild terrain. There are no trails here, and straight routes don’t exist, except when walking on top of huge fallen trees, high above the brush.

We navigate steep slopes, cold river crossings, muddy wetlands, tangles of slide alder and our favorite, devil’s club. With crowded parking lots and conga lines on trails becoming increasingly familiar to Washington hikers, one thing bushwhacking guarantees is solitude. No people, not even human footprints. We feel a million miles from I-5.

Peter Loft and Mandy Paul debate the next direction to travel along the Baker River, amidst thick understory vegetation. Photo: Jack McLeod

Conservation Northwest gives volunteers an opportunity to put “boots on the ground” as a way to contribute to wildlife conservation. Our results will become part of a large database of animal sightings throughout the Pacific Northwest, and one of the largest citizen-science efforts in North America.

The heavy motion-sensor cameras in our backpacks are a small price to pay to actively participate in this research, or for the incredible photos of the wildlife that help animate this wild landscape.

We persevere through the dense vegetation. This meadow just might be the place a grizzly passes through, looking for berries or roots, or crossing from this river corridor to the boulder fields up above. Just the place we might capture a photo, which would be the first confirmed North Cascades grizzly sighting in more than 22 years.

We set up the camera as we were taught in training: facing north, away from direct sun, angled at the target location. We ensure it has calibration photos of time, GPS coordinates and other information. In two to three months, we’ll be back.

Over the last two years, we’ve spent many days bushwhacking in the North Cascades, setting up and recovering cameras to try and catch a glimpse of this elusive animal. Finding locations like this is one of the prizes. It’s perfect habitat. Scanning this remote valley, it’s easy to picture grizzlies here. They once were, and they still could be. But the question is, are they?

Rusty Thurman takes the path of least resistance, following down logs through the forest for 50 to 80 feet at a time.                       Photo: Jack McLeod

Coming back to check the camera is the best part. It’s like visiting an old friend, because bushwhacking requires intimacy with the terrain. Senses are heightened and memories of particular obstacles, pathways and favorite rest-stops make the return-trip quicker.

Anticipation builds as we get closer. In one case, a camera was on a tree in the middle of a river bar that experienced extreme flooding between visits. We climbed over a new jumble of trees behind a giant fallen cedar. Where was the camera? Worried it was gone, we finally zeroed-in with GPS. The big tree hadn’t moved—it was as if the forested world around it changed.

Flipping through the camera’s photos is like opening presents on Christmas morning. We see black bears (apparently a dime a dozen in the North Cascades) and two bobcats hunting mice at night—that particular sequence of photos was fun to figure out. We see a coyote, black-tailed deer meandering through the site and other common critters, but no grizzly. Despite the slight let-down, we have new photos for the database and we’re breathing fresh mountain air.

We’re also making friends. Conservation Northwest attracts dedicated, hard-working conservationists who are fun to hang out with. The yearly trainings assemble a cast of characters including Dave Moskowitz, professional wildlife tracker, whose presence permeates everything we do.

He changes our outdoor vision, educating us with every track. “What is it? How do you know? When did it come by, how old is it, what sex?” Wrong answers are blurted out but Dave just smiles and rephrases the question as the team figures it out. Wildlife signatures are everywhere. We even learn how to distinguish tree-bark markings made by elk, bear, squirrels and humans. You never see the woods the same after an afternoon with Moskowitz.

Meanwhile, back at our North Cascades meadow, the cameras reveal more black bears and other fauna, including a diminutive pika. In the greater region, volunteers have recorded some of our priority species, including lynx, wolves, wolverines and fishers, in addition to cougars, marten, moose and too many elk and deer to count.

Our hunt for grizzly photos continues. We keep coming back for bear duty because just one photo could potentially change the course of conservation in the region for the better. A grizzly bear was last photographed not far over the U.S.-Canada border from a camera site in 2015. We’ll keep looking.

We’re so thankful for dedicated volunteers like Peter and Jack that make our Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project Possible. You guys rock! To learn more about this project and how to get involved, visit our webpage.
Though the volunteers were hoping for photos with grizzlies, they got black bears instead. Nonetheless, seeing the pictures of wildlife pass through is still a special thing to behold! Photo: CNW Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project