Beware the Bear

By Beacon Staff

During Friday night’s presidential debate Sen. John McCain – suggesting that the federal budget is rife with pork-barrel spending – cited a $3 million expenditure “to study the DNA of bears in Montana.” McCain routinely uses the DNA study in his campaign stump speeches.

Never mind that the study actually cost $4.8 million and is part of a push by Montana ranchers and farmers to have the grizzly bear removed from the endangered species list. And if successful, that effort could lead to increased logging and oil and gas drilling in the state.

Or that the study found there were 765 bears in northwestern Montana – the largest population of grizzly bears documented here in more than 30 years, and a sign that the species could be at long last rebounding.

No, after hiking this weekend, I have an up-close-and-personal reason to disagree with McCain’s take on the importance of the study.

My boyfriend and I made the short drive to Glacier National Park Sunday to take in the fall colors and enjoy the waning days of warm Montana weather. There, we decided to tackle the 4-mile hike from “The Loop” to the Granite Park Chalet. With a 2,300-foot ascent, it’s a steep climb, but one where hikers can view firsthand the effects of the 2003 fires and the plant rejuvenation since.

As it turns out, it also offers some wildlife sightings.

On the way down, as we rounded a tight corner my boyfriend stopped so short he slipped and fell to his butt. Like any good girlfriend, my initial reaction was to laugh and tease – until I realized what had stopped him in his tracks: a grizzly bear eating on the trail less than 50 feet from us.

The bear stared us down as we slowly backed down the path, contemplating, I imagine, whether to ignore our rude intrusion or use us as a supplement to his fall binge. I don’t think it noticed my hands were stained purple with the blood of his berries, the result of a binge of my own near the top of the mountain.

Back around the corner, and out of sight of the bruin, we made an adrenaline-fueled scramble up the trail and waited for a group of four hikers we knew weren’t long behind us. Together, the six of us, ventured back along the trail and, armed with bear spray (something I’ve always hoped to never use), passed about 30 feet below the still-eating bear. His one step toward us had me analyzing the comparative fitness and agility of my fellow hikers.

We finished the final two miles of our hike quickly, eager to make it back to the car, where our bear encounter would become a funny anecdote to tell at parties instead of a knee-shaking, pants-soiling reality.

How much more “pork-barrel spending” do you think it would take to move the study a step further and figure out exactly where Montana bears are at any given moment? You know, so I can avoid meeting any of the other 764.