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There's nothing like watching a grizzly bear in the wild

  We heard them long before we saw them. My husband and I were watching a grizzly feeding on the slope across the drainage from us when weird howls drifted through the valley. The bear heard the strange sounds, too, and eased into the brush at the base of a berry patch. The noises came again, closer, but they weren't wolves; they sounded more like coyotes.

We waited, until words emerged out of the drawn-out yips: These were humans. "They're afraid of bears," it dawned on me. Really afraid. Within minutes, a trio of outdoorsy-looking 20-somethings emerged from the trees to cross the dry creek from where we had been watching the bear, still shrieking and blowing whistles so loud that everyone within miles knew they were coming.

"You don't have to make that much noise," my husband, grizzly-expert Doug Peacock, told the group.

"Well, what if I want to?" one of the men retorted belligerently, a statement punctuated by one of his companions who let rip with another blast from his rape-alarm whistle.

Speechless, we followed the bear's example and hit the brush, vowing to avoid trails for the rest of our visit to Montana's Glacier National Park. (What the hiker failed to realize was that he had just escaped a potentially dangerous encounter with a wild animal named Doug, but that's another story.)

Yet I recalledsomething the woman in the group said before leaving. "They're looking at something," she'd told her companions, when they first noticed us scanning the far slope with binoculars. There was curiosity in her voice: She wanted to see something, too. Obviously they weren't going to catch so much as a glimpse of a chipmunk, what with all the racket they were making. And that's too bad, because it's not hard to learn how to walk around grizzly country in relative safety, without shouting yourself hoarse. The trouble is, most tourists just don't take the time.

Close to Yellowstone National Park, a group of investors is banking on that combination of curiosity, fear and ignorance. They've applied for a zoo and menagerie permit from the state of Montana to build a "grizzly motel" between Livingston and Bozeman, about 60-odd miles north of the park.

>Hotel guests will stay in underground rooms designed to look like caves, though with all the modern amenities. The main attraction will be a display window, one-way glass in each room through which guests can watch a set of captive grizzlies, much as they might watch the Discovery Channel on the TVs in their "caverns."

"It's going to be the best thing this area's ever seen" the group's spokesman, Casey Anderson, told a local reporter, adding that the owners are considering featuring trained-bear acts and renting out the grizzlies for movie work. Anderson expects to charge upwards of $200 a night to sleep with the bears, and my imagination runs to ludicrous possibilities. Why not charge adventurous guests even more to suit up in protective gear and "- having signed the requisite legal releases "- compete with the bears for a hunk of meat off a buffalo carcass?

I'm sure motel owners could get their hands on some winter-killed bison normally wasted on Yellowstone's free-roaming bears. Successful contestants would win a dinner of buffalo steaks for their families. In another game, a "tribe" of brave tourists could sneak up on a sleeping bear. The first to tap it on the butt and get back to safety unscathed would win a free night's stay, with the other guests taking home consolation prizes, perhaps tee-shirts "- also available for sale in the gift shop - with the motto: "I counted coup on a grizzly bear."

Fantasies aside, Anderson's project seeks to sell itself as a bridge between people such as the hikers we encountered, uninformed and frightened of the unknown, and nature. The problem is the inverse relationship between wildness and control.

Grizzlies are the epitome of what scares us about nature. We don't boss this animal around. But grizzly bears that have become habituated to people, whether along Yellowstone roadsides, in farms that cater to "wildlife photographers" or, God forbid, in a motel that boasts of tame bears, lose their wildness and their danger. We, in turn, lose the lessons in humility they have to teach us.

In choosing to domesticate these great wild animals, all we do is rob them "- and belittle ourselves.

Andrea Peacock is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado(hcn.org). She is a writer in the Paradise Valley of Montana.

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 [email protected].