The first thing I did when I got to Glacier National Park was go out for a run. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. I’d just graduated from college in New England, packed my belongings and spent three hard days driving West across the Plains. I was dying to get back to the mountains — and desperate to get out of the car.
When I finally arrived in Glacier, I dumped my duffel bag at the mouse-ridden former Youth Conservation Corps cabin that would be home for the summer, threw on my shorts and shoes, and ran. I’d been running the trails in the mountains of Utah since I was in high school. Could Montana be so different?
Hopping rocks and roots in the deep shade of giant cedars and hemlocks, I was brought up short by a loud snort from the brush just off the trail. The noise had come from a bear — a bear that was probably as surprised to see me as I was to see her, although she just snorted and grunted, while I dove headfirst behind the nearest tree. (Just for the record, this is NOT proper grizzly bear etiquette.)
That bear turned me into a hiker for the rest of that summer. And while I got used to no longer sitting pretty at the top of the food chain, I never forgot I was in grizzly country. It’s a fact that buzzes in the back of your brain like an insect — an incessant reminder that death could be waiting right around the next bend.
Large predators like grizzlies and wolves make places like Glacier different — and not just for us two-leggeds. Over the past several decades, many scientists have come to believe that these carnivores keep entire ecosystems in line. For evidence, look at Yellowstone National Park, where, as Thomas McNamee writes in the cover story of this issue, the return of wolves is causing a mess of ecological puzzle pieces to fall back into place.
Restore the top predators, and you restore the entire ecosystem. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity. But it’s a radical departure from the way wildlife managers are used to doing things. Tradition has it that you manage landscapes from the bottom up — the focus is on habitat, while predators are an afterthought, to be "controlled" or simply rubbed out. Tradition also involves a huge amount of tinkering, while reintroducing predators is more about letting go, tossing all the ingredients into the pot and letting it boil.
It’s an attractive proposition, though. Our management of wildlife has created quite a tar baby — each ecological "fix" seems to create a new set of problems. If we’re serious about restoring ecosystems in the West, we may need to turn them back over to their original managers — the ones with fangs and claws.
This doesn’t knock humans out of the picture, of course. There’s still plenty of work to be done in the short term, so don’t put the chainsaws and bulldozers on mothballs yet. Some of the most inspiring restoration work in the world is being done on the rivers and in the forests of the American West.
This work is all the more important because restoring large predators is pure pie in the sky in most places in the West right now. The backlash to wolf reintroduction in the Southwest and in the Northern Rockies is evidence that some Westerners aren’t ready to undo a few centuries of hard work wiping these critters out. Even the scientific community has been hesitant to embrace the new "top-down" predator theory. And most fundamentally, there simply aren’t many large blocks of habitat left where wolves and grizzlies will find room to roam.
But isn’t it an admirable goal — to recreate Western landscapes that can, to a large degree, manage themselves? Over the long run, shouldn’t the mission of our wildlife managers be to work themselves out of a job? We stand to gain a lot, even if it means looking over our shoulders as we walk through the hills, mindful that what’s for lunch may be us.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.