In search of Colorado grizzlies, 30 years after they disappeared

Thirty years ago this fall the last grizzly bear in Colorado was killed in the South San Juans. Supposedly.  On the chance that a big bruin or two had been hiding in the remote wilderness all these years, a friend and I backpacked in late this summer to take another look.

Yes, I was afraid of actually meeting a grizz on the Continental Divide Trail, but my strategy was to push my 6-foot-2 hiking buddy in front to stand by the bear and wave for perspective while I took a photo. Then I’d turn and run.

Actually, I was even more afraid of collapsing under the weight of my backpack since it had been years since I’d shouldered it for such an extended hike. So I jettisoned extra gear, including a tent, and starting at Platoro Reservoir in Conejos County on the eastern side of the divide we hit Rito Azul Trail and began the hike up to Blue Lake, the headwaters of the Navajo River, and some of the finest grizzly habitat in the lower 48 states.

In the Weminuche Wilderness I’d ridden horseback into La Rincon de la Osa, or the Hiding Place of the Bear near La Ventana, The Window. The last grizzly trapped in Colorado was killed there in 1952 in a place ironically named by the Spanish 200 years earlier.

After Lloyd Anderson trapped that bear, everyone assumed it was the last. And it was, until another grizz showed up in 1979, killed with an arrow under questionable circumstances by guide and outfitter Ed Wiseman. He claimed he caught an old sow in her daybed and, in self-defense, stabbed it with a hunting arrow. What really happened is hard to say. Area Division of Wildlife Manager Patt Dorsey believes, “The true story is locked forever in the heart of the San Juans.”

I figured if grizzly bears showed up every 20 or 30 years it was time for an encore. So up the trail we went.

The first day we hoofed it around Blue Lake, picked up the Continental Divide Trail, then left the smooth path with its stone cairns to drop over the edge into the headwaters of the Navajo River and high country paradise. That first night I was so tired that if a grizz had come into camp I’d have cuddled next to it and used it for a pillow.

Deep in the heart of the 158,790-acre South San Juan Wilderness, on the second day we shifted from backpacks to daypacks and set out on Fish Lake Trail in search of the wily grizz. At one time in Colorado, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of grizzly bears with nicknames like Old Clubfoot, Old Four Toes, Old Saddleback and Old Mose. To this day you’ll find dozens of places names such as Grizzly Creek and Grizzly Peak. Even after the “last” grizz was killed in 1979, big bear sightings continued.

Mark Reid, district wildlife manger for Pagosa North, states, “The absence of proof isn’t proof of absence.” Reid adds, “Some hikers and hunters think they’ve seen a grizz because they’ve spotted a large brown bear. The remaining Colorado bear species is a black bear, but in our state, the largest number of black bears are brown in color—like chocolate or cinnamon. Without photos, tracks or other evidence, there’s no way to tell what they’ve seen.”

My friend and I hoped to see a slow moving brown lump with a dished or flattened face, a distinctive hump, and tracks made from long claws. Instead we saw miles of mountains, clear blue skies, and perfect habitat for grizzlies.

I knew that grizzly bears needed at least 100 square miles each to roam and romp, but as the days went, by I came to understand what Patt Dorsey had told me. She had said, “Our wilderness is a lot of peaks and that’s not the best wildlife habitat to provide all the needs for big bears. The Colorado of 100 years ago doesn’t really exist. We have a hard time co-existing with black bears.” With a note of resignation she had added, “Grizzlies have their own survival strategies and there’s too many of us and not enough wilderness.”

Still, we scanned the horizon, looking for well-muscled bears, long fur rippling in a breeze. We searched for tracks on the tundra among the bluebells, daisies, clover and a dozen tiny alpine flowers. I wanted to see a grizz playing in the snowfields, holding its toes and tobaggoning down a north-facing slope. Instead there was only wind and a slow-moving storm as we crested the Continental Divide Trail and camped below Gunsight Pass.

The next day we crested the pass, hiked along the rim to look down into the turquoise waters of Lake Ann and at one point high on the divide looked northwest into the awesome jumble of pines and cliffs which is the head of the Blanco River basin. “Down there” we said. If there’s any grizz left in the state they must be between the headwaters of the Navajo and Blanco rivers in some of the wildest, most remote country we’d ever seen.

The skull of the last grizzly killed in Colorado is at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Though the hunter claimed he fought the bear in self-defense, Craig Childs writes in The Animal Dialogues “Years later someone admitted that the hunting party had come upon the grizzly as it foraged in the tall grass of a meadow. She had been killed without warning. Her teeth had been worn to smooth bulbs. Her claws were flat.”

I’d like to tell you I dreamed of grizz on our last night in the wilderness. I’d like to say that as we hunkered down in the dark pines like wet trolls for another rainy night, our dogs howled and a huge shape slipped through the trees. But no bears came. After 26 miles of backpacking we’d seen awesome country, but no grizzlies. Still, they could be there. I want them to be.


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