The Return of the Grizzly

Parts of the West are braced for a second coming.



TOWARD the end of his life the novelist A. B. Guthrie Jr. would peer at the Rocky Mountains through the double picture window of his secluded Montana cabin and fume over the costs of progress. Behind him, on a wall of his second-floor loft study, hung testaments to the celebrated western writer: the Cowboy Hall of Fame certificate recognizing Guthrie as a charter member, the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for the Academy Award screenwriting nomination for Shane. In front of him, though, Bud Guthrie saw a chronicle of decline. Ear Mountain still towered in the distance, but the fields and streams surrounding his boyhood home of Choteau, Montana, had changed, and the land that Guthrie had memorably dubbed "Big Sky" country seemed smaller. When Guthrie was a boy, the Teton River ran full and pristine; he would drop on his belly to slurp its water, or take a dip in the bracing stream, studying the patterns on the minnows. Now irrigation had thinned and muddied the Teton. Ranches where Guthrie had picnicked and chased prairie chickens from the cinquefoil were being subdivided and outfitted with drills for oil and gas exploration. "A man finds few absolutes in this life," Guthrie observed. "But one that forces itself on us is this: Progress leaves no retreat."
Yet just a few miles from Guthrie's A-frame the son who shared his name, A. B. Guthrie III, known as Bert, welcomed the progress that his father so distrusted. Bert had a different dream for the Rocky Mountain Front, where the Great Plains run hard up against the mountains. From the time he was a child working on his grandfather's ranch, Bert had wanted to earn his living from the land. In 1959 he took over a 4,000-acre section of his mother's family's spread, ran sheep and cattle on it, and grew spring wheat. But unlike his father, who compared economic growth to a cancer, Bert saw development as a tonic for the community. "Dad sat in front of his window and pecked on his typewriter and said 'Aren't the flora and fauna beautiful'?" Bert recalls. "He never had to go out and face the storm -- and I did."

Father and son might never have publicly aired their differences had not something unexpected happened: one day, for the first time in the century, grizzly bears started coming down out of the Rockies and well into the plains. In 1983, a year before the forays began, Bud Guthrie had written a paean to the grizzly, calling it the "living, snorting incarnation of the wildness and grandeur of America." The "very thought of seeing a grizzly, of being in bear country, is an enticement and a thrill," he believed. But Bert Guthrie had little appreciation for ursine charms. No grizzly had been spotted on his ranch since his grandfather started homesteading it, in 1895. Now, suddenly, grizzlies were seizing his sheep by the throat in their powerful jaws or knocking them dead with a swipe of their claws.

The story of the Guthries and of the reappearance of grizzlies along the Front provides a preview of the obstacles the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may encounter as it tries for the first time to reintroduce grizzly bears in an area where they have gone extinct. In March the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it intended to introduce twenty-five or more grizzlies over a five-year period, starting in 2002, into the vast Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, in central Idaho and western Montana, with the hope that one day some 280 grizzlies will roam the region. The plan has kindled a confrontation between townspeople, environmentalists, and ranchers over an emotional question: Who really owns the West?

More than 24,000 individuals, organizations, and government agencies commented on the reintroduction proposal, which could eventually increase the grizzly-bear population in the lower forty-eight states by almost a third. Now Idaho's lawmakers are searching desperately for ways to keep the grizzlies out. Governor Dirk Kempthorne has stated that the reintroduction plan "is perhaps the first federal land-management action in history likely to result in injury or death of members of the public," and the Idaho representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage has likened the government's plan to "introducing sharks at the beach." In the town of Challis, Idaho, county commissioners have even enacted an "Unacceptable Species Ordinance," decreeing that grizzlies may be killed in the county, in defiance of the Endangered Species Act.

NO animal in the American wilderness inspires more fear and awe than the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis. Adult male grizzlies typically weigh 400 to 500 pounds in the summer, and stand six to eight feet tall when upright. Despite their heft, grizzlies can run forty-four feet a second, easily outdistancing the world's fastest human being. Their jaws and teeth crunch through bones like a shredder through paper, and a blow from one of their forepaws can kill a horse. Yet the bears' wildness and fierceness are precisely what backers of bear-recovery efforts find so exhilarating and humbling. To them, grizzlies put the "wild" back in "wilderness."

Grizzlies do not generally prey on people, but they have killed several dozen hunters and backpackers in North America during the past century, in some cases feasting on chunks of their victims afterward. On average, grizzly bears killed two people a year in the 1990s in North America, and seriously injured five to ten, according to Stephen Herrero, the author of the classic 1985 study Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. The most recent fatal mauling in the lower forty-eight states occurred in May of 1998, when twenty-six-year-old Craig Dahl, an experienced outdoorsman, was killed and half eaten by a grizzly while hiking in Montana's Glacier National Park. A Park Service investigation concluded that Dahl had most likely been killed by a bear named Chocolate Legs -- who was tracked down and destroyed, along with her two cubs. By unfortunate happenstance, a 1997 children's book from the Humane Society had featured Chocolate Legs as a heartwarming example of a grizzly who had successfully been relocated in Glacier after becoming too habituated to people. "This bear is safe now," a park ranger explains in Chocolate, A Glacier Grizzly. "It looks like she'll stay in her new home and away from people."

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