Sweet Grass Bears

Grizzlies ventured 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front out onto the Great Plains

By Rob Breeding

Grizzly bears made it to the Sweet Grass Hills last week. That’s pretty remarkable, seeing as the Hills are about 100 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front out on the Great Plains.

One-hundred miles isn’t all that far for bears actually, but still, grizzlies are bears of the mountains, or at least modernity has rendered them so. More commonly, they’re bears of the great parks: Glacier and Yellowstone. That’s not the only place they’re found of course, but the parks are the place where we expect them, and even there we expect them to be rare.

The Sweet Grass Hills are another matter. It’s not like they haven’t been there before, despite the inaccurate claims otherwise from agriculture interests who are understandably not thrilled to have bears this far out in Montana farm country.

The Hills are certainly part of the bear’s historic range prior to European settlement, though the hills were surrounded by seemingly inexhaustible herds of bison back then. Lewis and Clark encountered grizzly bears all across the Great Plains on their journey to the Pacific. No one has seen them in the Hills for 100 years or so for obvious reasons: we killed them off.

Eliminating predators made perfect sense for early settlers trying to extract a living growing sheep or cattle or wheat. But today we live in the post-conservation era, a time when we have decided to conserve some of the animals those before us sought to eradicate. That’s what a law like the Endangered Species Act is all about: society placing a value on inconvenient, and occasionally dangerous wild animals.

We’ve worked hard the last few decades preserving the remaining grizzlies in the continuous United States. In fact, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it and deserve to pat ourselves on the back. Wolves are an even more dramatic success story. We’ve recovered that species, and while I’d like to see them expand their range into suitable habitat in places like eastern Oregon and northern California, it’s also fair to say we have plenty in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming; arguably too many.

These wolves and bears are not bumping up against habitat constraints. The limits they are now testing are social and economic. The Endangered Species Act remains a popular, albeit an underfunded and poorly executed law, but there’s nothing that guarantees that support will be a permanent condition. Expanding populations will test that support.

So I think it’s a fair question: Do we want grizzly bears in the Sweet Grass Hills?

I think it’s OK if the answer is “No.”

I’m not saying that’s my answer. Frankly, I’m still trying to process this one. The Hills are a special place, a favorite of mine. The fact that griz wandered out that far onto the Plains is remarkable. But the first thing the bears did when they made it to the Hills (reports are that it’s a pair of probably young griz) is kill 13 politically connected sheep owned by the president of the Montana Wool Growers Association.

Grizzly bears on the Front Range and Yellowstone are expanding beyond the confines of the parks and national forest lands, reclaiming habitat like the Hills that was once bear country. In their long absence our tolerance for bears has changed. They are no longer vermin to be shot on sight.

But the use of that land has changed as well.

Where bears once encountered limitless open prairie, they now find farms and towns and potential conflict. It’s a sign of success for the Act that we are moving beyond the days where we’re just trying to keep the bears alive, and we’re now making more complicated decisions about which new places we should allow them to stay.

The long-term success of the Act will require us to make the right call.

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