This was the rule of late summer in Montana’s Mission Valley: During the day, the landscape belonged to humans. Tractors worked the fields, and children played carefree in the yards. People swam in shady eddies and picnicked beside the creeks.
At night, the bears came out. Stretching in the cooling twilight, the grizzlies left their overgrown sheltering places along the streams and in the foothills. Bears owned the valley after dusk, and people shut their doors. Yard lights spread yellow circles on the ground, and farm dogs patrolled the edges, barking.
From a grizzly’s perspective, the Mission is perilously full of humans but lavishly stocked with food. The bears have been scavenging dead livestock and making use of orchards for a century, and their scats have spread seeds across the landscape, raising countless feral apple trees. More recently, as climate change and rural subdivision have tightened their grip on the region, grizzlies have turned to eating corn. This habit hurts the bears, ruining their teeth and upending their patterns of seasonal foraging. Corn keeps the bears in the low country through fall, their hungriest and most aggressive season, and a time when they should be feeding high in the peaks. The resulting crop loss hurts farmers, whittling away at the narrow margin upon which they subsist. Grizzlies, it turns out, can eat a lot of corn.
Three years ago, I spent a summer at a cornfield near the base of the Mission Range, working for a conservation group called People and Carnivores—a small organization focused on reducing conflict between human beings and large predators in the Northern Rockies. As the group’s field director, I set out to build an experimental electric fence that would keep bears out of the corn and a dairy farmer in business. The field was locally renowned for drawing grizzlies, with up to 16 of them visiting at a time. I stretched wire and drove posts like a man possessed, sprinting to close a 2-mile-long circle before the crop ripened.
When the ears were ready, most stalks reached 7 feet tall or more. The stand had thickened until each plant’s leaves tangled with those of its neighbors. It was more like a thicket than a planting, and had changed color from bright new growth to forest green.
Darkness mingled with the leaves, and stalks stood together like a wall. You could lose your arm in there—literally as well as figuratively, because the fence was not wholly successful at keeping out bears. Grizzlies, after all, are persistent creatures. If there is a meal to be had, they’ll eat. My work cut the crop damage by about 75 percent that year, but the four bears that snuck into the field stayed for the long haul.
Four is a sufficient number of grizzlies to render a place eerie—impregnating every blind corner and overgrown slough with the possibility of wonder and disaster. Scat and tracks were everywhere, and bear trails wide and winding as hiking trails. I will never forget the feel of walking near and sometimes through the corn, and how the proximity of grizzlies sharpened my senses and focused my attention on the moment. My grandmother, hearing about these exploits through the family grapevine, threatened to stop praying for me if I didn’t knock it off.
But I saw things that made the risks worthwhile: greenlit rooms and corridors that the bears opened in the stand; impressions, one overlaying another, of pads in the field’s soft mud. Leaving trail cameras out at night, I came to know several grizzlies: the subadult that circled the fence nightly, appearing on first one camera, and then another; the tank of a boar that snuck in when the voltage dropped; the crafty one that dug beneath the fence where it crossed a ditch; the wounded bear, her face a mess of scar tissue, whose story forms the backbone of my book, Down from the Mountain.
Walking the fence with my heart in my throat, I came to see the grizzlies as individuals. Like us, they are susceptible to whim and anger. They have good days and bad ones. Some bears are naturally retiring, and others quick to anger. I learned how encountering a grizzly in the wild evokes some of humanity’s better impulses, with gratitude and humility foremost among them. As I looked across the Mission Valley toward the timbered shins of the mountains, across farms, subdivided homesteads and a busy highway, it struck me that we have reached a critical point in our relationship to wild creatures and wilderness in the American West.
That final notion haunts me, and I’ve proved it true over the course of the intervening years. Here in my arid, beloved, unforgiving state of Montana, a shift has taken place. In the past our houses, towns, fences, plowed fields and roads could be plausibly described as islands in a wild sea. Put simply, it used to be that most of the land was ecologically intact, and a smaller portion was developed. Now, after more than a century of frenzied plowing and building, that relationship has been reversed.
The shift is troubling for many reasons, but it’s particularly significant for the grizzly, a species that used to thrive from the West Coast to the Great Plains and from the subarctic down to Mexico. The grizzly now persists in a fraction of its historic range. I hope to see the bears return to a larger chunk of the landscape—to walk, for example, from the Mission Valley to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, a vast block of public land from which grizzlies have been absent for more than half a century—but each passing year makes the journey harder.
In the words of a local bear biologist with a long, distinguished career behind him: “This is our last hurrah. We’ve got about 50 years before the corridors of undeveloped habitat fill in, and grizzlies can’t move between the mountain ranges. Then we won’t even recognize Montana. We’re like a fucking glacier, filling up the good low country, leaving a few mountaintops for the bears.”
I’m more hopeful than he is, but the moment’s urgency is clear. Unless we make certain changes, the coming decades will see us lose crucial land. I’m not talking about national parks and designated wilderness areas, but the privately owned parcels in between. We stand to lose our valley floors to population growth and subdivision.
It’s heavy, what we’ve already done to this region. Ask the Salish, Kootenai or other tribes. They’ve seen a complex, difficult landscape beaten into something much more convenient and commercial. I am determined to go no farther in that direction.
If we want grizzlies and other wild things to persist throughout the modern landscape and move freely between the wilderness areas essential to their long-term survival, we must act now to hold space for them. This means preserving corridors of open land between wildernesses; supporting farmers and ranchers who share their fields with wildlife; standing against subdivision. It means using dialogue, zoning, shame and hope—whatever it takes to ensure that one generation’s whim or need does not seed another generation’s ruin.
Seeing grizzlies thrive across a crowded West requires as much restraint as action. After more than a century spent populating and domesticating this region at a terrifying pace, we must reimagine progress. In many places, this means stopping the fragmentation of intact habitat. In some others, it means undoing what we have done and demolishing what we have built. Therein lies the challenge of the coming years. If we want valleys like the Mission and species like the grizzly to flourish, we must do something unprecedented: Leave parts of the landscape less settled—and therefore more whole—than we found them.
People and Carnivores is a conservation group based in Bozeman, Montana. They work with landowners and managers, tribes, community groups and other NGOs to reconnect and restore carnivore populations in the Northern Rockies. By developing and refining tools to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife, they can keep people safe and bears, wolves and cougars wild.