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Painting of grizzly bear in Rocky Mountains by Larry Jacobsen

Grizzled

By David Gessner

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Not a fracking boom or a uranium mine or a new condo development, but a hiking trail. A hiking trail. We had met our enemy and they were us.

 
1.

I have grizzly bears on my mind while sheltering in place, and not just because I’ve started to look like one. Grizzlies are in the news, especially the Yellowstone bears, which are said to have thrived during the seven weeks the gates to Yellowstone National Park were shut. But it isn’t Yellowstone grizzlies or grizzly bears in general that concern me: I’ve been thinking about a much smaller group of bears, a remnant population of 25 or so that I learned about last summer. These bears live up around the Canadian border in northern Montana.

Excerpt from Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis, Torry House Press (June 2021),  by David Gessner, reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.

Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis

When the pandemic struck, David Gessner turned to Henry David Thoreau, the original social distancer, for lessons on how to live. Those lessons—of learning our own backyard, rewilding, loving nature, self-reliance, and civil disobedience—hold a secret that could help save us as we face the greater crisis of climate.

Be sure to view David’s Terrain.org series Walks and Talks with Dave (and Henry), where the ideas for this book began.

Learn more and purchase the book.

What I know about these particular grizzlies I learned from a group called the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Last June I ended up in the Yaak Valley accidentally, which is not an easy thing to do. You may even doubt that someone could end up accidentally in one of the most remote places in the United States, but it was true: I wasn’t there on assignment as a journalist and my being there had nothing to do with my passion for bears or my passion for the Yaak Valley. I hadn’t come to see the literary conscience of the Yaak either, though I was a fan of the writer Rick Bass’s work and had met him a couple of times before.

On the other hand, to say I stumbled upon the place and the story isn’t exactly right either, since I didn’t stumble but flew. The pilot was Bruce Gordon, the proprietor and pilot for Ecoflight, a nonprofit funded by environmental groups. Piloting a six-seat Cessna, Bruce’s job is to fly people over landscapes that they are trying to save. Six years before, while working as an environmental journalist, I had joined Bruce on a flyover of the lands being opened to fracking north of the Book Cliffs in Utah, and a couple months before my visit to Yaak I contacted him to see if there was any chance I could hitch another ride. I explained that I was finishing a book about Theodore Roosevelt, and I wanted to get a literal overview of the Western public lands that Roosevelt had fought so hard to preserve. I didn’t care exactly where we went or who we visited as long as I could see a good swath of the Western landscape from above. Was he taking any trips over the next couple of months and did he have an extra seat in his plane for a curious nature writer?      

Yes, it turned out, he was and he did. He would be flying from Aspen up to northern Montana in early June, and if I kept quiet and let him read the paper while the plane was on autopilot I could come along. It wasn’t until the day before the flight that I learned more about its dual purposes: to support the efforts of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and their fight for the grizzlies he would fly a group of people over a proposed hiking trail that the council hoped would serve as an alternative to another that led through the territory of the bears they were trying to protect. After that we would fly east a few hundred miles for some sponsored flyovers of the Missouri Breaks and other land being bought up by the American Prairie Reserve, land where herds of buffalo were being re-introduced.

The trip north from Aspen was everything I had imagined: we skimmed over a snowy unpeopled landscape of the Flat Tops, crossed the Red Desert, cursed at the massive fracking of Pinedale, Wyoming, and then almost clipped the Tetons as we headed north into Montana. The price of my plane ticket had been exactly zero but I sprung for a half tank of gas ($356) when we stopped to re-fuel in Missoula. That airport had been small and practically empty but seemed big and bustling compared to our next stop, Libby, which was basically an airstrip and empty hanger.     

Rick Bass’s daughter Lowry, who was home from college, picked us up at the airport and, after dropping Bruce off at a hotel in Libby, we drove up to Yaak along the logging roads that bisected the forest. We passed the house where Rick and Lowry’s mother had spent their early years in Yaak, a story recounted by Rick in Winter. That had been a romantic book in many senses, not the least being Rick’s falling in love with the land he would call home over the next 40 years. “The first flush of rootedness can’t be repeated,” said the Cape Cod nature writer Robert Finch. Winter was all about that first flush. From that unheated caretaker’s cottage Rick and his wife Elizabeth had moved to the house where Lowry and her sister would grow up, and where she now drove me down a dirt road over rocks and through the forest. A big-boned simple house made of wood deep in the trees facing out at a marsh without a neighbor in sight. In celebration of our arrival, Rick’s dogs, two French Brittanies, a German shorthair pointer, and a Staffordshire terrier/hound mix, sprinted around the yard.

Rick himself was deeply involved in the preparation for the meeting of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which was also a dinner party, but he took time out to say hello and direct me to his upstairs studio, where I would sleep for the next couple of nights on a futon. I napped for a while and then came down and met the various council members, who had begun to pour in from all over Montana. There was a pony keg of beer that I drank deeply from and it was a fascinating and shaggy group, but they soon turned to their business. Before they did Rick asked me a favor, and that favor had to do with food.

A quick word about the diet of grizzly bears: they will eat almost anything, from berries to deer to the occasional hiker. Throughout my life my own diet has been similarly diverse, minus the hikers, but that had changed for a while in the few weeks before my visit to Montana. Which meant that I had been a vegan for two full months when my host asked me to grill the antelope leg.

Everyone else in the house—activists, lawyers, artists, writers, hunters—was now too busy to cook, embroiled as they were in the work of saving bears. I was the outsider, from far away Carolina, and so I accepted the job and grilled the dry-rubbed leg while they schemed.

My days as a vegan were about to come to an end, but the truth was that my motivation for not eating animals had never been the usual ones. My eating habits had changed as the result of a deal I had made with my 16-year-old daughter, Hadley. Hadley, an environmental activist and ardent vegan herself, had many great qualities but one thing about her drove me and her novelist mother crazy: she did not like to read for pleasure. And so back in April I had proposed a deal: if she read for 20 minutes a night, I would be a vegan the next day. I kept my side of the deal for eight weeks, or until soon after I was handed the platter with the antelope leg on it and pointed toward the grill. The leg barely fit on the old potbellied Weber. As it cooked I reached down, tore off a piece, and took a nibble. I closed my eyes and savored the gamey taste. A happy return to my omnivorous ways.

Grilling antelope leg
No vegans in the wilds of Montana: the antelope leg grilled at the Yaak Valley Forest Council gathering at the home of Rick Bass.
Photo by David Gessner.

2.

It was a place I had read about long before I set foot in it.

Over dozens of books, Rick Bass had celebrated the rugged and remote landscape of the Yaak, and anyone who had even dipped into his work knew that this land was not just beautiful but threatened. This was one of the paradoxes of Rick’s life in Yaak: the place that he had fallen so hard for, where he found peace, was also a place of war. As his love for the Yaak deepened he began to see threats to it everywhere. For years the enemy had been the lumber industry, which meant doing battle with his closest neighbors. The latest threat, the one the council was meeting to discuss, was an unusual one. Not a fracking boom or a uranium mine or a new condo development, but a hiking trail. A hiking trail. We had met our enemy and they were us.  

The goal of the meeting I attended was to alter the route of the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), a trail that was to run across northern Montana directly through grizzly country. For the remaining population of 25 or so grizzlies anything that increased their encounters with human beings could spell their end. What the Yaak Council was proposing was moving the trail south of the grizzly corridor.

The hikers who wanted the trail built through bear country weren’t bad people. They just wanted to be in the wilderness, this wilderness. The problem is that the bears wanted to be in the wilderness, too, and didn’t have many other options. Which set up a clash between nature lover and nature lover, hiker and hiker, environmentalist and environmentalist. A civil war of sorts.

At the party I met Jane Jacoby, who was the conservation director for the Yaak Forest Council.

“The struggle between conservation and recreation is going to become more and more common,” she told me. “But I think that this story represents one of the real challenges that Western forests are going to face in the future.”

I was impressed by the spirit de corps of the Yaak group. What was immediately apparent the night of the party was the energy and good humor in that room, the sense that they were part of a team. But if they were a team there was no doubt that Rick was the one leading the charge. One of the reasons I had begun my book about Theodore Roosevelt was that I thought it might prod me into activism, and that, after a lifetime of writing about the natural world, I might actually start to fight for it. Rick Bass needed no such prodding.

“I almost played devil’s advocate in there,” I said after the party.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.

A veteran of many ecowars, Rick led with his heart in a way those of us who are more calculating do not. There was another side to the story, of course. On the other side this time was not a lumber executive but Ron Strickland, a nature lover who in creating the PNT was following through on a vision he had first had back in the 70s after hiking the Appalachian Trail and then coming west and imaging a trail that led not north to south but east to west.  In fact, the PNT starts in grizzly country, in Glacier National Park, but the population in Glacier is healthy, and the bears aren’t hanging on by a thread the way they are in the Yaak.

Ron Strickland has accused Rick Bass of NIMBYism, but it seems to me that this term, which means “not in my backyard,” has always ignored a simple fact. That environmentalism often starts in our backyards. That we naturally fight for land we know best and love. Many of those in attendance at Rick’s house regarded the grizzlies as their neighbors. Their work involved being good to those neighbors.

Yaak Valley view
Sandals optional: Rick Bass’s backyard in Montana’s Yaak Valley, where Bass and others are working to reroute a proposed leg of the Pacific Northwest Trail out of grizzly country.
Photo by David Gessner.

3.

The next day I began to find myself feeling envious. Envious of the place and Rick’s life in the woods compared to my own domesticated, tenured life back in Wilmington, North Carolina. This was a counterlife I could imagine, one I’d dreamed of, of nature and solitude in the middle of nowhere. Rick was a writer in the wild, and had not taken the tenured route that so many of my kind, myself included, have taken.

That morning I walked for miles through the tall trees and moldering forest floor, north from Rick’s house toward Canada, and then, right when I was about to turn around, I was drawn onward by the call of a bird I didn’t recognize. Earlier in my walk I’d heard or seen wrens, robins, a raven overheard, but it was this strange upward whooping noise that pulled me on. The bird led me to an aspen grove that stood guard over a boggy land, a quiet place that would quickly prove anything but quiet. First came a kind of thrumming that made me think grouse. Then deer breaking from the bushes and leaping through the aspen. Then the birds that I had been chasing seemed to turn and come to me, whirring near my head in a way that brushed the air and made it thrum. Was that the grouse noise? I had thought I was chasing a ground bird but now they were whooping it up in the aspens. I still couldn’t identify them and scribbled down my own name for them on a scrap of paper: whipping whoopers. Finally, there came a noise that really got my attention. A snorting noise in the bushes. It could have easily been another deer but I froze for moment, frightened, and decided it was time to turn back.

After my hike I was sitting out on the front porch staring at the marsh when Lowry Bass brought me an antelope sandwich made from leftovers. If I understood things correctly this particular antelope had been killed nearby, when Lowry and her father, their rifles on their backs, mountain-biked over to the land where they shot it.

When Rick first moved here there was no phone, no electricity, and his only way of communicating was a short-wave radio. Times have changed and as I sat on the front porch I e-mailed my old friend from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the osprey expert Alan Poole. It didn’t take him long—I was still eating my sandwich—to write back with a chief suspect for the birds I’d encountered: snipes, likely Wilson’s snipes. According to Sibley’s field guide, the birds are known for “their winnowing flight display” during which “[t]heir outer tail feathers produce hollow, low whistle huhuhuhhuhhuhhu….” Of course in pop culture snipes are also known for something else. A snipe hunt is a practical joke or fool’s errand “in which an unwitting victim is sent in pursuit of something that doesn’t exist.”  

My symbol-making mind didn’t waste any time with that one. What is the writing life if not a snipe hunt? And if all writers are after snipe, searching for something that doesn’t exist, then Rick had doubled down, moving to the middle of nowhere while pursuing his imaginary career. He did this in a style uniquely his own and despite being a seemingly full-time activist, sometime teacher, and dedicated father, had been almost manically prolific, the author of, at last count, 35 books.

That night we glided down into town in an old car with weak brakes, with Rick driving, me in the passenger seat, and Lowry in the back. We were headed to a talk by a grizzly expert down in Libby and as Rick kind of skied the car down, I glimpsed, not for the first time, a Neal Cassady element to him. His background was as an engineer and he liked machines, old cars and guns and chainsaws. He seemed more relaxed talking to me while he was driving.

Bruce Gordon of Ecoflight
The view from here, today’s edition of the newspaper notwithstanding: flying to Montana with Ecoflight.
Photo by David Gessner.

4.

Rick had socially distanced and sheltered in place long before it was in vogue.

Things were gamier at Rick’s. That was one of the things I liked about it.

“I love a broad margin to my life,” said Henry David Thoreau.

That, it seemed to me, was what Rick Bass had in the Yaak.

During the pandemic my own life has gotten gamier too. It isn’t just that I look more like a grizzly now, it is that I feel as if my own margin has gotten broader. We haven’t mowed the lawn and the dandelions are waist high. I know I am not the only one undergoing like experiments, and if there is a control group for those of us not showering I haven’t met anyone in it yet. Like a lot of people, I enjoy not going into work or changing my clothes too often, though it is a pleasure that flirts with depression.  It also feels to me, after years of teaching, like I am a writer again.

Those few days in Montana would prove to be a precursor to my life during quarantine in more than one way. I remembered how much I liked living out in the woods, which had been tantamount for me, as a teenager, with not giving a fuck. But of course it never actually worked that way, not really: if you were a decent person you started caring about those around you wherever you were, whether those others were people or birds or grizzly bears.

There was another minor way my visit gave me a hint of times to come. It turned out that Dave Mattson, the wildlife researcher and grizzly expert, couldn’t make it to give the lecture because his wife was sick. So he sent along a PowerPoint and he Skyped during the Q&A. (We also didn’t know then that Skype would become the Pete Best of telecommunications apps.) At first there was the usual comedy of writers trying to make the technology work, but we were lucky this time since there were scientists among us. Though it was slightly anticlimactic to sit and watch something we could have seen online, the message was a powerful one.

The gist was this: Bears die where roads are. Roads, and trails, bring people and when bears encounter humans, and there is a problem as there so often is, it isn’t the people who are relocated or shot.

“Where we have lots of people we don’t have a lot of grizzlies,” he said simply. 

The fragmentation of populations and habitats was the issue. Islands of grizzly habitat, broken up by fracture zones, such as highway corridors. The roads into the Yaak were logging roads and it was the roads that segregated the populations. Roads were there, Mattson told us, because of the Forest Service and industrial extraction.

Like Thoreau, bears need a broad margin. One of the great ecomovements of the West has been an attempt at rewilding, at connecting migratory corridors so that animals can roam.

“If the distribution of bears is long and narrow it is in danger,” Mattson said.

“Because there is no buffer.”

The bears need space, lots of it, which it just so happens Montana still has. If we give it to them. An exciting idea, perhaps the most exciting environmental idea in the contemporary West, is connecting wild spaces to one another. Connectivity as an antidote to fragmentation.    

Fragmentation is one problem. Poaching is another. And climate change provides another threat: a possible berry famine. The bears may be omnivorous but they rely heavily on berries and there is fear that with the advent of hotter temperatures the buffaloberries and chokeberries could start disappearing.

Hikers, admittedly, don’t sound as dangerous as these threats. But trails bring people, too, for day hikes, and day hikers need roads to get to their trails. If the goal is to reduce human interaction then it doesn’t really matter if the humans are wearing hiking boots.

As it turned out the behavioral recommendations that many of us took away from Dave Mattson’s talk that night are not that different than those we have been practicing for the last three months during the pandemic. Stay at home. Socially distance. Don’t drive so much. Explore your backyard. Give others plenty of space. Live with a broad margin and let others have a broad margin, too.

I have come to believe that our greatest strength, at this point in the human experiment, is our ability to not do things. To exercise restraint. To leave things and places alone.

5.

The next day, down in Libby, Bruce took members of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, along with local politicians and members of the press, up in his plane for a flight over the land that Rick and the Council have proposed as an alternate path for the Pacific Northwest Trail. The path is a detour for sure, dipping south away from the Yaak grizzlies, but what’s a hundred miles or so if you are hiking a thousand? At that point I hadn’t talked to Ron Strickland yet, and so didn’t have a full view of the controversy, but even before I went up in the plane I was pretty sure I was fully on the side of my current hosts. I have come to believe that our greatest strength, at this point in the human experiment, is our ability to not do things. To exercise restraint. To leave things and places alone. To give animals the margin they need.

Bruce took three laps and I went up during the second. Having traveled from Colorado with Bruce I got to play the old pro, laughing gently when one of the passengers worried about getting plane sick. It was spectacular country with great ridges and mountains and waterfalls and while it did amount to a long southern detour, it was hard to imagine hikers wouldn’t delight in this section of the hike. Meanwhile the northern grizzlies could go about their business, un-harassed. 

During the third lap I sat in the pilot’s lounge and talked to Jane Jacoby, the conservation director.

“What you are seeing here is the future of environmental fights,” she said. “Something that a timber representative said to me that really blew me away was that recreation today is in the position that timber and lumber were 40 years ago. Obviously recreation doesn’t have the same impact but it does leave its footprint.”

I thought about a new friend of mine, a young writer and environmentalist who lived in southeast Utah named Zak Podmore. Zak had grown tired of the way that it was now standard practice for environmental groups to make their case for preserving land by pointing to the economic benefits of tourism and recreation. I had made this argument myself, touting the work of Headwater Economics, an independent research group that stresses the benefits of what is called the amenities economy—the service jobs and other jobs that crop up around beautiful places—over the extractive economy.

“I’m going to start a betting pool among my environmental friends, about which environmental group can go the longest in their presentations, blogs, or newsletters without mentioning Headwater Economics and the amenities economy,” Zak told me. “I understand why they use the argument. People who opposed the park and monuments used to say that these environmentalists are just nature lovers who don’t care about the people and want to kill these towns and their economies. But now we have gone too much in the other direction. Is that really why we are saving land? So we can have a booming recreation economy?”

I appreciated his point. Sometimes it seems as if we have donned our enemy’s clothes. Recreation can be just a different kind of growth, a different kind of not leaving things alone.

In the pilot’s lounge I also spoke to Tara Morrison, who was on the board of directors of the forest council. Tara was from the Midwest and I asked her how she had ended up in Montana. She said she had been blown away when she read Rick’s book Winter, and wrote him a fan letter addressed simply to Rick Bass Yaak Valley Montana. Not long after that, she visited the Yaak for the first time and met with Rick a café in Whitefish. At that point Rick had never used a computer before, but during lunch Tara convinced him that he needed a website to help fight for the bears.

When the last flight landed outside, Tara asked me, “Are you driving back?”

“Nope, I’m flying on this afternoon,” I said, pointing to the plane. The next morning we would be taking some members of the American Prairie Reserve over the Missouri Breaks.

She laughed. “How exciting,” she said. “I’d like to go with you.”

It did sound exciting. And it would prove to be. That afternoon we would fly east over the snowcapped peaks of the China Wall, a 22-mile-long landform that arcs like a dragon’s back, guarding the wilderness, and down into the grasslands of central Montana. Bruce and I would land in the town of Lewiston, where we take the courtesy car, the keys left there for overnighting pilots, to the Super 8. In the morning we would take off with a small group of media people and environmentalists and fly along the Missouri River, over the American Prairie Reserve, a corrugated landscape of hills and grasslands through which Lewis and Clark had paddled. The goal of the reserve was to return all the native animals to the prairie, and thanks to the group’s efforts hundreds of buffalo now roamed these hilly grasslands. There was another more secret but grander ambition as well, one that played the same chords as Yaak on a larger scale. This was to connect the prairie wilderness to the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness and to Glacier National Park to the west and north, and to Yellowstone in the southwest, creating a great triangle of connection for wolves, bears, and buffalo. This seems absurdly ambitious, but there is already evidence that it is happening, with wolves, those great roamers, leading the way, and grizzlies tentatively coming down out of the mountains to re-inhabit their ancient homeland on the plains.

David Gessner and Ecoflight plane
David Gessner hitches a ride aboard Bruce Gordon’s Ecoflight plane to explore Montana mountains and plains.
Photo courtesy David Gessner.

6.

There are reports that a big male grizzly has taken advantage of the reduced traffic during the pandemic and has been rooting around the anthills outside the Yaak Valley Forest Council office, while also feeding on roadkill along the Yaak River Road.

The other day I called Dave Mattson, the grizzly expert, who lives south of Livingston, Montana, not far from the northern entrance to Yellowstone. I asked him how he was doing during the pandemic.

“My life has not been that much impacted,” he said. “We’re kind of semi-isolated as the norm.”

“What makes these bears unique?” I asked Dave.

“Well they’re unique if for nothing else Rick cares about them so deeply.”

We laughed.

Yes, the bears had been lucky to have a writer, particularly a writer like Rick Bass, to take up their cause. But, Dave continued, these particular bears are also signifiers of a lot of history and representative of the challenges that face any wild animals trying to survive in the modern world. All of the changes that humans have perpetrated. In that sense they are really symbolic bears more than anything else, he said. Their story reflects the history of extirpation, and yet they have survived because the country they live in is, in its own way, despite the amount of roading and timber harvesting, inaccessible.   

“You get off a road or a trail and it is incredibly thick, hard to get around,” he said. “And it’s that fact that probably saved them from the fate of other populations in the West during the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are a reflection of the unique thick, wet environment they live in. They were also spared aggravating factors, like spawning salmon in Idaho, that made bears in other kinds of country vulnerable by bringing them down to steams and into contact with people.”

It seemed that their diet, a diet my daughter would have approved of, might have been what saved the bears of Yaak. No antelope legs for them.

“Being in a berry environment, a fruit-rich environment, is a characteristic of that population. That isn’t true of many populations, though when a lot of people think bears they think berries, assuming that all bears depend on fruit. But it’s actually not that common for fruit to be such a mainstay. In pre-European times much of what bears ate in most places was meat. So salmon along the coast and further north moose, caribou, and out on the plains, buffalo. It turns out that there is a fairly restrictive area of southeastern British Columbia and northwestern Montana where fruit is the staple for bears. A somewhat unique relationship between bears and berries.”

And of course, this being the times we live in, that relationship is threatened too.

“And not just berries, but huckleberries specifically. There is pretty good evidence that the recent berry famine drove a spike in mortality in the bear population. There’s an increasing amount of research suggesting the demise of most of the important berry-producing plants is problematic. We are losing our pollinators—most of the pollinators for huckleberries are vespids, bees, wasps. If you don’t have the pollinators you don’t have the fruit. So where does that leave the bears?”    

We’d reached the place that talks like these usually lead. The view wasn’t very nice.

“Where I’ve ended up after confronting these bleak prospects, some of them imponderable, is that there is a lot that those of us who care are probably not going to be able to do to change things much. But what is it we can do? I guess my perspective has been to do what I can to buy the bears as much time as I can, and to buy them as much space as I can, so that we have populations as large as possible as we head into this hazardous and uncertain future.”  

Which brought us around to Rick’s quest.

“One could argue that the hiking trail will not be a critical factor in determining the fate of the bears there. It’s probably a minor threat compared to major so-called forest restoration and logging projects. On the other hand, those bears with that population don’t have the resilience to sustain any added impacts. Logging might be worse, but the trail is an added increment that probably is an increment too much.”

When I mentioned my envy of all the space Rick had, Dave, characteristically, turned that idea back toward bears.        

“It’s interesting to think not just of space but freedom,” he said. “Being liberated. It’s easy enough for us to apply this to ourselves. It’s interesting to think about it in terms of bears and their experience of the world. Talk about imponderables. Brings us back to empathy. When do we begin to extend our empathy beyond the human?”

Dave had grown up in western South Dakota, which was to say, he explained, that he “grew up with a certain amount of grief for what had been lost.”

This included the loss of grizzly bears.

“My folks had a small ranch up in the Black Hills, not too far away from where Custer shot his grizzly and the same county where the last grizzly in the Dakotas was killed. My grandad was part of the posse that tracked down the last wolf in South Dakota. The point of that is that I have spent much of my life fantasizing about the return of improbable carnivores. I’ve done a lot of work trying to reconstruct the life and times of grizzlies on the plains.”

Which had made Dave, to mangle a metaphor, the black sheep of his family.

“No one else in my immediate family spent much time imagining what the place once was. For me that is the part of my history that has made my imagining so vivid, wandering around my ancestral country and trying to imagine what it was like. Realizing that there was this amazing world here before it was autoclaved here by Europeans. My mom, having grown up on a sheep ranch, could never quite get her head around why I wanted to spend his life studying large carnivores.”

One thing all that imagining, and studying, had convinced him was that plains bears, unlike the mostly vegan bears of Yaak, were meat eaters.

“Bison was their staple, probably accounting for 90 percent of their nutrients. The paradox of the plains today is that we still have vast herds of bovines, an equally good bear food, but we more aggressively contest that food with bears. Another way of putting that is that there is no shortage of bear food in the world.”

I mentioned the trip I took the day after visiting Rick over the American Prairie Reserve.

“The grizzlies are getting close to the Preserve,” Dave said. “About 80 to 100 miles away. The question is not whether the bears can survive on the Prairie Reserve but whether the reserve is big enough to create space to create a large enough buffer between the bears and those who would be aggrieved by their presence. I’m skeptical about that. On the other hand, if you had asked me 30 years ago whether there would be a prairie reserve, a potential promised land for the bears, I never would have imagined it. Nor would I have imagined grizzly bears out as far as they are on the plains. So that is cause for optimism.”

Since the original purpose of the American Prairie Reserve was to restore bison, I wondered how those at the reserve would feel about their bison being food.

“I think they are sympathetic to the idea of them losing some bison to have bears,” he said. “I’d like to think that the inclinations that led to the creation of the reserve go hand in hand with a greater generosity, and willingness to share.

Aerial view of Grand Tetons and airplane wing
A shimmering view: flying just about within reach of the Grand Tetons, aboard Ecoflight, en route to Montana’s Yaak Valley.
Photo by David Gessner.

7.

Before I left the Yaak we all gathered on the runway to chat and say goodbye. Someone had brought donuts. Rick, in un-shy mode, was selling his concept of the southern route to the reporters and local politicians. This wouldn’t exactly be leaving nature alone since the southern trail would have to be built too. But the point was that it would no longer run right through the home of the Yaak grizzlies. And importantly the new trail wouldn’t require any new roads or new use of old roads, to get to. Maybe, if we moved the trail and behaved well in other ways, the last bears would survive.

If I had become envious of Rick’s life for its solitude and retreat, I was also a little envious of his community. He was part of a team and that team was part of a fight. Which was another paradox: this was deadly serious business, saving the last bears, but the group also seemed to be having fun. I was reminded of the ideas that the poet Gary Snyder had spoken on Earth Day in 1990: “We need to stay loose, smart, creative, and wild. The wild is imagination—so is community—so is a good time. Let’s be tough but good natured… warriors make cause with wild nature, and have some ferocious fun doing it.” 

Yaak was where Rick had made his stand. There was a quixotic aspect to his life here, certainly, and it was part snipe hunt. But what he had done was also deeply impressive and, for me, inspirational. To encounter someone who didn’t just write about saving land and animals but went out and did it. 

After a while, and a couple glazed donuts, Bruce and I said goodbye to Rick and Lowry and the rest of the gang. While they walked back to the airport parking lot we got to make our much cooler exit, strolling across the tarmac and climbing aboard our little plane. If we were wearing cowboy hats we would have waved them before climbing up into the cockpit. Not five minutes later we were up in the air again, waving down at the group, as we flew east over the vast Montana wilderness.

 

 

David GessnerDavid Gessner is the author of Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis, Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness and The New York Times-bestselling All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West. Chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and founder and editor-in-chief of Ecotone, Gessner lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, the novelist Nina de Gramont, and their daughter, Hadley.

Read David Gessner’s Walks and Talks with Dave (and Henry) series, as well as “Making a Name: Wallace Stegner” and “Edward Abbey at Havasu,” all appearing in Terrain.org.

Read David Gessner’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.

Header image, painting of grizzly bear in Rocky Mountains, by Larry Jacobsen. Photo of David Gessner by Debi Lorenc.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.