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.
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?
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
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
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
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