BOISE, Idaho Officials with two federal and two state agencies plan to search a 5,000-square-mile area for grizzly bears in north-central Idaho and western Montana next summer, using motion-sensitive cameras and special fur grabbers.
The $60,000 search, which still must be funded, comes after a black bear hunter from Tennessee mistakenly killed a grizzly bear in September in rugged north-central Idaho terrain near Kelly Creek about three miles from the Montana border.
The last previous confirmed sighting of a grizzly in the area was in 1946. But after the young, 450-pound male grizzly was killed on Sept. 3, officials began wondering if more grizzly bears had returned to the area.
"We don't know," said Steve Nadeau, large carnivore coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "We don't think there are very many bears up there, otherwise we'd be getting more observations that are verifiable."
In addition to Idaho Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will take part in the survey if the money is approved, a prospect Nadeau said was likely.
"The project is basically a go next year," he said.
Chris Servheen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator, said he has requested money from the Wildlife Service and Forest Service for the survey.
"I have no information as yet on actual 2008 funding for this survey but I am hoping to make it happen," he told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
The last time the area underwent an extensive survey for grizzlies was in 1991 and 1992, Nadeau said. The proposed survey would likely start in May if snow levels allowed access, he said, and last through September.
Fur would be obtained from barbed wire and back scratchers placed in key locations. DNA from such fur can tell scientists whether the animal is a grizzly and whether it's male or female. Motion-sensitive cameras would also be set up in some areas.
"They'll be distributed through the northern part of the ecosystem where this bear was killed, with an attempt to capture DNA from additional grizzlies, if there are any," Nadeau said. "They'll be placed in good habitat and probably along a grid format to stratify the habitat in some fashion."
The grizzly killed by the unidentified hunter in September was shot in the North Fork of the Clearwater Drainage about 20 miles north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness boundary and within the 25,000-square-mile Bitterroot Experimental Population Area.
Plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the area as an experimental population have languished. The bear that was killed migrated to the area on its own and therefore carried special protections as a member of a threatened species.
Still, state and federal authorities are not pursuing criminal charges against the hunter, or his two guides, because of the prolonged absence of grizzlies in the region.
If the study finds other grizzlies have returned on their own, those bears would also be considered threatened, and the region could be recognized as containing a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
That designation would only apply, Nadeau said, if the study found an established population, loosely defined as two females with cubs over a period of five years.
"We don't have anywhere near that kind of information right now," he said. "It's possible we could get something along those lines through this work next summer."
Genetic testing on the bear that was killed found it's likely a descendent from a population roaming in northern Idaho's Selkirk Mountains.
Biologists say the bear migrated 140 miles south and crossed two major highways to explore the northern fringes of an ecosystem experts have been expecting bears to discover on their own for years.
"These young males will travel extensively between the ages of 3 to 6," said Nadeau. "It's high quality grizzly habitat, and it's along a good travel corridor."
Bringing grizzlies back to the Selway-Bitterroot has long been a priority for grizzly advocates because the landscape is considered a bridge to connecting grizzly populations in Yellowstone National Park with bears elsewhere in north Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.
But even if bears are in the area, Nadeau said, confirming their existence will be difficult.
"These animals are very good at hiding and living their lives unbeknownst to humans," he said.