ENTERPRISE -- Oregon's only moose herd now numbers more than 40, and the presence of moose sometimes means grizzly bears are soon to follow.
Northeastern Oregon's swelling moose population could prove increasingly tempting to the mighty silver-tipped bears, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The region has adequate habitat for 10 times the number of moose now living here, she said.
But some biologists argue that grizzlies have no way of knowing that Oregon's moose are here. Chris Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula, Mont., is among those who don't expect grizzlies to show up any time soon.
"I think it's unlikely we are going to get any back in Oregon in the near term," he said.
Among the reasons: Central Idaho has no grizzlies, while migration routes from established habitats in northwestern Montana and Washington's North Cascades are blocked by urban development, highways and broad swaths of open farmland, he said.
But the wild card is that solitary grizzlies may already be wandering in and out of Northeastern Oregon from time to time.
June Colony of Lostine believes she encountered a grizzly while tending sheep in Hells Canyon of the Snake River in 1973. After a nighttime attack on her flock that left a sheep and a lamb dead and another badly injured, a gigantic, tawny-brown bear strolled through her camp in daylight, she said.
When it passed on the opposite side of her walk-in tent, it was so big she could see its back and the distinctive hump over its shoulders above the canvas, she said.
"There was no doubt in my mind what he was," said Colony, whose flock was on the Oregon side of the Snake River. "I had been around bears a lot, and I was out in the woods all the time."
ODFW biologist Vic Coggins of Enterprise says reports of grizzly sightings have been coming out of Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho boundary and the adjoining 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness for 40 years.
The snag is, not one sighting has ever been verified, he said. ODFW biologists have never even found a footprint of a grizzly.
Coggins recalls a three-year period when ODFW biologists examined 80 bears spanning a color spectrum from cinnamon to blond, brown and black. All were black bears, and Coggins concluded that finding a grizzly that has wandered into eastern Oregon "is possible but unlikely."
While the presence of grizzlies in Central Idaho may be in dispute, no doubt exists that they are elsewhere in the state. A man living near Tetonia, Idaho, along the western boundary of Grand Teton National Park, survived a mauling in April 2007. The offending grizzly was protecting a moose carcass.
Five months later, a 400- to 500-pound grizzly was shot in north-central Idaho's Selway Bitterroot Recovery Area, where grizzlies were believed extinct, by a hunter who mistook it for a black bear.
About the same time, the Moscow, Idaho-based conservation group, Friends of the Clearwater, announced it had reports of grizzlies in Idaho's Bitteroot Mountains dating to the late 1990s.
Servheen said those reports, when checked out, always involved black bears, not grizzlies.
ODFW biologist Pat Matthews of Enterprise said solitary moose now are scattered across Wallowa, Union, Umatilla and Baker counties, while a "core herd" of roughly 40 is north of Elgin. Biologists aren't sure how many are in Oregon, he said.
Given patience and luck, moose sometimes can be viewed by driving Forest Service roads or floating the Grande Ronde River between Minam and Troy. A bull moose recently was spotted along Hurricane Creek near Enterprise and Joseph, said Matthews.
Moose have generally been welcomed, but grizzlies are likely to get a mixed reception.
"The fear factor definitely comes with the critter," said Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward of Enterprise, who worries about potential human-grizzly encounters in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon, or even nearer to the region's small towns.
"You get a grizzly bear in a place like Wallowa Lake State Park, and you've got a problem," he said.