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Grizzly sunset: A journey into Colorado's final refuge for the great bear

R. SCOTT RAPPOLD Updated: June 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

"Those who have packed far up into grizzly country know that the presence of even one grizzly on the land elevates the mountains, deepens the canyons, chills the winds, brightens the stars, darkens the forest, and quickens the pulse of all who enter it.”
JOHN MURRAY, “The Great Bear”

SOUTH SAN JUAN WILDERNESS, RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST • A snap of a twig woke me with a start.

I was deep in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, miles from the nearest road, with nothing but a thin layer of nylon between me and whatever was out there creeping through the night.

There are no grizzly bears here, I told myself.

Right?

I didn’t come to Colorado’s most remote and wild corner expecting to find the great bear. The last grizzly in Colorado died 32 years ago after stumbling upon and mauling an elk hunter. Before that, in 1952, a hunter killed what was supposed to be the “last grizzly in Colorado.” Both grizzlies were killed in these mountains.

Still, if a grizzly remained in Colorado it could live here, in a wilderness so vast and lightly-visited you can hike for days and never see a soul. It’s a prospect that has fascinated biologists and others, even as each year without a sighting makes it less likely any grizzlies remain.

“It’s like the loss of innocence,” said David Petersen, area resident and author of “Ghost Grizzlies,” about the history of grizzlies in Colorado and the early 1990s efforts to find more in the San Juans. “Those bears were here since the Pleistocene Epoch. There were as many bears in Colorado as in any other state in the West.”

On a June weekend, I laced up my hiking boots, strapped on my backpack and set out into the South San Juan Wilderness to understand this place and how grizzlies could have hung on here decades after they were hunted to extinction elsewhere.

Take a photographic journey into this remote corner of Colorado.

• • •

Blue Lake is a spectacular mountain lagoon tucked just below the gentle ridge of the Continental Divide. Jagged cliffs tower over the crystal-clear water.

I drove four hours from Colorado Springs, rumbled 30 miles up a tooth-rattling dirt road, lugged my backpack through 6 miles of wilderness, waded the Conejos River and post-holed through snow to get here.

Grizzlies once thrived in Colorado. But their pockets of survival got smaller and smaller as government-funded hunters exterminated the bears, which were seen as a threat to progress and livestock.

The south San Juans were their last pocket. The area was never mined, so there were few roads providing access. And the enormous Tierra Amarilla, a privately-owned Spanish land grant in the heart of the wilderness, offered a great refuge for the bears.

In 1951, a sheep herder shot a grizzly near this lake. Grizzlies were believed extirpated from Colorado a year later, when a federal trapper caught one north of Pagosa Springs. “Good riddance,” said ranchers, tired of grizzlies killing the sheep they kept on national forest land.

So in 1979, while hunting just across the Continental Divide from Blue Lake, a grizzly was the farthest thing from Ed Wiseman’s mind — until a bear he had accidentally cornered on a ridge burst from the bushes and severely mauled him. He was able to kill the bear by stabbing it with an arrow, and while some questioned his story, he passed a lie detector test and was cleared.

She was an old bear, with arthritis and abscessed teeth, and probably would not have survived another winter.

But, experts said, she had nursed cubs in her lifetime. The cubs were never found.

• • •

After a night camping near serene Blue Lake, I arose before dawn and set out for a long day on the Continental Divide Trail.

I had hoped to find the spot where in 1979 the Colorado grizzly vanished into history. But there is no marker or trail, and steep drop-offs await any misstep, so I settled for using my imagination as I climbed high above timberline. The splendor of these mountains became grander with every upward step, distant spires and forbidding rocky walls rising above endless green hills and valleys. The only sign of civilization, if I strained my eyes, was a tip of Platoro Reservoir 10 miles east.

It’s easy to see how grizzlies survived here. They grew smaller than their northern Rockies cousins and learned to stay hidden and reclusive. The vastness of the land sheltered them.
But by 1979, after the bear was killed here, attitudes toward grizzlies had changed. The Endangered Species Act protected them. Researchers and biologists descended on the south San Juans, but did not find another bear.

In the early 1990s, conservationists launched another round of studies in the area. Petersen accompanied researchers on many expeditions and came back convinced grizzlies remained here.

“We believed the bears were there. We really wanted there to be grizzly bears in Colorado. We believed that if we could prove there was at least one native grizzly bear still alive that would invoke the Endangered Species Act and the feds would have to protect any remaining bears, most notably by stopping sheep grazing in the area,” said Petersen.

And, he said, they could talk about reintroducing grizzlies to the area.

Researchers found lots of circumstantial evidence — eyewitness accounts, inconclusive hair samples, blurry photographs — but never proved there was a single grizzly left.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife came out against reintroduction, and for the second edition of his book Petersen changed his mind, arguing against it, for the bears’ sake.

“I don’t think our culture is there for it,” he said. “We are not mature enough to make room enough to have grizzly bears here.”

• • •

After a night spent at yet another awe-inspiring campsite, along the Middle Fork of the Conejos River, feet away from a stunning 100-foot waterfall you won’t find on any map, I packed camp and reluctantly walked out of these mountains.

The south San Juans may have more quiet beauty than anywhere in Colorado. Though it was a warm week in June, I saw exactly two other people in three days.

As I walked down the broadening valley of the Conejos, I thought about what we have lost here. Yes, a predator like a grizzly bear invokes a fear in hikers and campers. And maybe Colorado has too many people for the bears.

But they are natural, and without them Colorado’s mountains, while beautiful, are missing a wildness.

“In a practical biological way, any ecosystem that lacks its apex predator is not a complete ecosystem and is therefore weaker,” said Petersen. “We’ve come down to these little islands of wildness, surrounded by everything that is not wild. There are too many people and we’re trampling over everything.”

• • •

I stopped in Platoro, the collection of summer vacation cottages on the edge of the wilderness, on my way home. There I met Mark Jaffe, a hunting guide who has been roaming these mountains for years. He knows the difference between a grizzly and a black bear, and swears he saw a grizzly three years ago, a few miles north of where I hiked.

He stopped his car, looked at it through binoculars and said it had the signature grizzly humped back you don’t find on black bears.

“It stood there and looked at me and then waddled up to the treeline,” he said.

How could grizzlies live there for so long and yet there be no proof?

“You get back in that wilderness and there’s so much ground to cover,” Jaffe said. “I’m pretty sure it was a grizzly.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials often receive reports of grizzly bears. Black bears can be blonde or brown, and people get excited when they see one. The last credible sighting occurred in 2006 near Independence Pass; officials investigated but found nothing.

If the 1979 bear had cubs, they are likely dead. If those cubs had young, they could still be roaming these hills. It’s a distant possibility that grizzly lovers like Petersen hang onto, even while they concede the grizzlies are probably gone.

“In my heart of hearts, I really can’t find any justification to have any strong feeling that there’s still a grizzly left in Colorado, but it’s possible. It’d be really arrogant and stupid to say, ‘There’s no way,’ just because there’s no evidence.”

“If there are any grizzly bears left in Colorado, I hope nobody finds them. Just let them live what’s left of their lives in peace.”

Contact R. Scott Rappold:
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