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Issue Room: Saving Room for Grizz

by Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 1999.

Snow drifts down out of the sky, defying the green up all around us. The aspens are budding and yet I shrug myself deeper inside my jacket and train the spotting scope on the slope above. "There she is, she's just on the edge of the trees."

"No, no, I still don't see her."

I try again to point her out, get her--all three or four hundred pounds of her--into the view piece. "Look again, she's there and her cub's just to the left."

Finally, my companion, a reporter from the L.A. Times, sees her. "Oh yeah. Got her."

The sow grizzly moves across the slope and then is gone, this time for good. Though I scan the slopes several more times from the porch of my cabin at the B-Bar Guest Ranch, there is nothing.

We are in Tom Miner Basin, on the edge of Yellowstone Park. It is May in the Rockies and the grizzlies are out. A day ago, a squadron of us--mostly writers, some photographers--saw several grizzly bears inside the safe confines of the park. But this grizzly, this sow with a young cub of the year, is nearer civilization, off the park on the national forest. Down here in the valleys there are homes and ranches and cows and dogs. I hope she knows enough to teach that young cub to stay away.

I am here because I like grizzly bears. I like seeing them. I like sleeping and living in the same country. I like the fact that I live in a place wild enough to do that. This is the last place, the last stronghold. I am here in Tom Miner Basin, Montana, to learn more about grizzly bears. The event is a three day media conference, introducing outdoor and environmental writers to some of the foremost grizzly bear authorities in the world.

The conference blends wildlife viewing and presentations into relaxing mix of work and pleasure. We hear about population trends and the move by the federal agencies to take the grizzly out of the protection afforded by the endangered species act, where it is listed as threatened. We learn about habitat loss across North America and learn about alarming trends in grizzly bear foods.

Louisa Willcox, a NOLS alumni and former instructor, perhaps sets the tone for the entire conference when she notes, "The biggest success story is that grizzlies are still here. Merely the fact that we have grizzlies is an enormous success story."

"Here" is Yellowstone, or more scientifically, the Yellowstone Ecosystem, for wildlife and wildlife habitat stretches beyond the confines of the park into national forests, public open space, and private lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Two decades ago, the grizzly bear found these spaces mostly wide, filled only by the occasional ranch or timber sale. Today, though, the threats are more numerous, and so, too, are the bears, say federal and state wildlife biologists.

Willcox points out diminishing food sources including dwindling whitebark pine stands, thin cutthroat trout spawning runs and much more. The grizzly is in trouble, she says, and now is not the time to take it out of the protective blanket of the ESA. I absorb all of this, yet while I do, I think about that last grizzly I saw from my porch at the B-Bar. To me, this was the symbol of the grizzly in the future, a great bear on a literal ridge between wilderness and civilization, a bear poised to either drop back into the wilds, or take easy pickings in the low country.

The most disturbing report during the weekend, for me, is a Sierra Club report entitled "Serious Sprawl," tracking trends in private lands development in the region. The upshot is that private open space is going fast. The pace of development has been unprecedented in this decade, falls mostly in river corridors and crucial wildlife winter range, and in Montana alone is mostly rural in nature. Indeed, the report finds that much of the open space in the region has already been subdivided and approved for development in the near future.

For NOLS courses in the Absarokas, hiking in grizzly country is a balance of managing hazards and education. We teach about ecosystems, but our experience is a wilderness one, and we often forget about the intricate ties between low sage range and those high mountains we prowl. Few NOLS courses see grizzly bears, even when in grizzly country, yet we hang our food in caches, and camp and cook with bears in mind. We know they are out there, even if we never cut their tracks pressed deep into the mud along our route. Knowing this, for me, heightens and exhilarates my experience. But this past May, I asked myself, will they be out there in the years ahead?


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