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.