Grizzlies and the limits of coexistence

A rancher weighs the fate of wildlife and human encroachment in his new book.

 

In Bears Forever, a 2015 documentary produced by a coalition of First Nations in British Columbia, a Wuikinuxv Nation elder named Frank Hanuse described the uncanny experience of skinning the only grizzly he ever killed. Beneath its thick fur, the creature was eerily anthropoid, endowed with dexterous fingers and lean muscles. Recalled Hanuse with an uncomfortable chuckle: “I got the feeling of killing my own brother.”

Grizzlies are our long-clawed shadows — omnivorous, adaptable, drawn toward human civilization by the smelly refuse of our lives. In Montana’s Mission Valley, twilight is the thin veil that separates the species. On hot August afternoons, carefree residents work their fields and frolic in creeks, “as if ravenous creatures were not hiding among the trees,” writes Bryce Andrews in Down From the Mountain, his soulful new exegesis on ursid-hominid relations. After sunset, however, the bruin night shift reports for duty. “Yard lights spread yellow circles on the ground, and farm dogs patrolled the edges, barking into the dark.”

A grizzly bear in Montana.
Southern Lightscapes-Australia

Down From the Mountain arrives as a loose sequel to Badluck Way, Andrews’ elegant 2014 memoir chronicling his first year as a Montana ranch hand. A Seattleite who grew weary of concrete and low gray cloud ceilings, Andrews crossed the Rockies to wrangle cows, mend fences and channel his inner Ivan Doig, the Montana novelist who once declared himself the bard of the “lariat proletariat.” But wolves tormented Andrews’ herd, forcing him to suppress his affinity for predators and shoulder a Winchester. Badluck Way’s denouement found its author vexed by doubt, enamored with ranching but discomfited by the apparent necessity of killing wild animals.

If Badluck Way is an archetypal coming-of-age story, Down From The Mountain showcases a writer whose talents have fully matured. Andrews’ sophomore book shares themes with his debut: Both address the challenges of ranching alongside carnivores, the pleasures of physical labor, and the virtues of a working dog (in particular, one named Tick). Now, however, Andrews’s convictions have solidified. He has sold his share of the ranch, “the essential gearing of (his) soul … worn out by the task of turning animals into meat,” and signed on with People and Carnivores, a nonprofit that helps landowners coexist with predators — predators like Millie.

Millie is a female grizzly, perhaps 16 years old, with two cubs in tow. She haunts the Mission Valley’s orchards and ranches, gleaning apples and digging up gophers, savoring “the easy crunch of rodent bones between her teeth” before vanishing into the woods with the coming of dawn. But like the protagonist of many a tragedy, Millie proves too pure for this corrupt world. Attracted to a backyard by unsecured garbage, she takes a shotgun blast to the face. Mortally wounded and starving, Millie abandons her cubs — who are captured and remanded to a zoo — and flees into the easy pickings of a cornfield, an ignoble hospice for such a majestic animal.

It’s within the cornfield that the two narratives — Millie’s plight and Andrews’ conservation career — intersect. Andrews has spent months constructing an electric fence around the field, a theoretical win-win intended to protect crops and bears alike. Cornfields are fertile ground for horror — just ask the directors of Signs or Planet of the Apes — and Andrews reaps every kernal of suspense from his account of fencing a farm crawling with grizzlies. “The crop loomed up until I could see nothing but the stand, which had the aspect of a wave prepared to break,” he writes. “Warnings flickered up from the deeper parts of my mind: There is a bear, very near, and you cannot see.” For all his unease, though, it’s Millie who’s in the gravest danger, and she is the one must pay the ultimate price for our empathic failures.

Andrews is captivated by grizzlies as a social phenomenon — admired by many, hated by some, feared by all. But he is much less concerned with them as political animals, whose legal status has been contested for decades, and one wishes, at times, for the management context that deepened, say, Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf. Nonetheless, Down From the Mountain belongs in the pantheon of contemporary conservation writing. It is easy to forget, when arguing over the fate of wildlife, that populations are composed of thinking, feeling individuals; in his sensitive treatment of an ill-fated ursid, Andrews breaches the fences that guard our compassion.

He is clear-eyed, too, about the limits of “coexistence,” a buzzword that becomes ever more elusive as roads and houses clot our wild lands. “In my lower moments, it seems I could spend a lifetime building cornfield fences … and make no headway against our epidemic lack of restraint,” Andrews laments. Bears’ appetites may become “desperate and insatiable” each summer, but it is we, their bipedal doppelgängers, who are the true gluttons.

Ben Goldfarb is a frequent High Country News contributor and the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They MatterEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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