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Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at fieldnotes@seattletimes.com with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

July 8, 2011 at 7:00 AM

A summer of counting wolf pups and hunting grizzly bear hair

Posted by Craig Welch

Carnivore biologists have new reasons to spend a lot of time in the Cascades this summer.

Wildlife researchers plan to head into the field in Kittitas County late this month or early next trying to find and count a new litter of gray wolf pups. Meanwhile, bear biologists will be trekking through the woods much farther to the north. They'll be hauling barbed wire as part of an effort to get DNA samples from wild grizzlies.

Both efforts are linked to recent discoveries that are getting some buzz in wildlife circles. For those who missed it, we reported last week that a live grizzly bear had been photographed in the North Cascades of Washington for the first time in roughly 50 years. The photograph was reviewed by a panel that included many of the nation's top grizzly bear experts. Read the story here.

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A grizzly bear chows down in preparation for winter on Oct. 21, 2010, in the North Cascades. Photo by Joe Sebille.

Then, on Tuesday, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife revealed that a new pack of gray wolves had taken up residence in the Teanaway River basin, a 90-minute drive east from Seattle. Read that story here.

wolf 3.jpg


wolf 1.jpg

These pictures of a gray wolf were snapped by remote camera in the Teanaway River basin about 90 minutes from Seattle. Photos courtesy of Conservation Northwest.

Thus far, much about the Teanaway pack remains a mystery. While there are a series of remote cameras scattered throughout the river basin, biologists still aren't certain how many animals are there. They don't know the location of any den site. Nor is it yet entirely clear whether the wolves worked their way west from the Rocky Mountains -- or worked their way south from British Columbia. DNA tests of tissue samples from the one animal biologists were able to radio collar last month may help clear up the pack's geographic roots. Researchers hope the rest will be figured out this summer as teams of biologists from Fish and Wildlife follow wolf tracks and scat and watch wolves through spotting scopes.

Bill Gaines, a biologist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, expects to alter his summer routine a bit, too. He is part of a team that has been setting up barbed-wire "corrals" in hopes of getting tissue samples from the region's elusive grizzlies. The corrals involve stringing short section of barbed wire a few feet off the ground in an area that seems likely to be populated by bears. Biologists then coat a small section with stinky liquids designed to lure predators. When the animals come through, tiny tufts of their hair get trapped by the wire, which scientists can later use for DNA testing. The animals may even have a snapshot taken. You can see a short video about the project here.

The hair-snagging effort actually is in its second year, but Gaines expects to visit some new locations this summer near where a hiker photographed the new North Cascades griz.

But Gaines knows first-hand just how rare it is to actually come across endangered grizzlies in north-central Washington. All the photos and hair samples they collected last year were from other animals -- black bears, cougars, even an animal they suspect might have been a wolf.

"Last year we processed over 700 samples," Gaines said, and sighed. "Nothing turned up grizzly."

He hopes 2011 will produce a different result.

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