GREAT FALLS – Living and ranching along the Rocky Mountain Front means living with bears. It is frequently a challenge.
Livestock losses are common. Residents and visitors must take precautions. Living alongside an aggressive predator isn’t easy,
One week ago, late in the afternoon, an ordinary hiker enjoying a walk not far from his home was attacked by a grizzly. The unidentified hiker meant no harm, the sow grizzly was just protecting its cubs. The encounter ended badly for both of them.
And that’s where the story could have ended; an innocent man injured, one adult bear killed and its three orphan cubs lost — but for the kind actions of a Dupuyer ranching family.
Mike and Kadie Briggs have been managing cattle along the upper reaches of Dupuyer Creek for nearly a decade.
“We’re right up against the mountains, along one of the main drainages where the bears come up and down,” Kadie Briggs said of their life with bears on the Rocky Mountain Front. “We have positive interactions, where we get to see the non-problem bears, and some negative interactions as well.”
Little more than six months earlier their 13-year-old son’s saddle horse had been killed by a bear. For people who have never lived among bears, it was a frightening event that is hard to imagine.
“It was during that really big snowstorm we had in the fall, and a bear ran (Kadie’s son’s) ranch horse into a deep snow drift and killed it,” she told the Great Falls Tribune. “We weren’t using or riding them at that moment. These horses were just out in the pasture back behind our house, and the bear just picked that one and chased him into a snow drift. It was pretty brutal.”
Still, the Briggs harbored no hatred for the bears. Just a reinforced respect for the danger they could pose.
Like all of their neighbors, the Briggs and their four children knew of the April 8 bear attack, and that two or more grizzly cubs had been orphaned. Two days later they became an intimate part of the tale.
“We heard that there had been cubs and my husband had heard the helicopter fly in,” Briggs said of the bear attack.
She and Mike were returning home on a Friday afternoon; driving west up Dupuyer Creek Road following a trip into Valier to run some errands. That’s when the spotted three bear cubs.
“When we first saw them they were literally in the ditch right next to the road,” Kadie said. “They were working their way up onto the road, at which point I’m guessing they would have crossed and gone down into the creek bottom. When we pulled up, then they stopped.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists had been looking for the cubs from the time their mother was euthanized. Mike Briggs called them as soon as their truck had ground to a stop.
“At that point other cars were driving up and down, seeing them and starting to video tape and take pictures,” Kadie Briggs said. “Eventually the cubs got scared and started heading back up the hill. At that point we decided we better keep them close or we might lose them again.”
Another rancher might have left the cubs to decide their own uncertain future. Such a choice almost certainly would have ended in death, either from starvation, exposure or from the ill temper of another grizzly. Male grizzlies (boars) are well known for their habit of killing cubs — better to eliminate the competition before it grows into an adult.
“We just know that boars go all up and down that creek — all bears do,” Kadie said of their motivation for saving the cubs. “That’s the main traveling area, up and down that creek. Most likely that’s why the mom had them up on the hillside. Our fear was that they would just get down there in that creek and either get killed by another bear, starve to death, or with the big storm coming in … it just probably wasn’t going to be a good scenario for them.”
So they got out and did what many non-ranching families would never expect them to do. They set out to capture and save the grizzlies.
“In their way they were whimpering,” Kadie said of the cubs. “They were doing kind of a little cub whine. When we started getting close they were clacking their teeth. They weren’t wanting us to get too close.”
At that point the three cubs were 200 to 300 yards away from the Briggs.
“We just kind of snuck around them and hazed them back towards the truck,” Kadie said. “With the snow starting to fall we thought we better do something.”
That “something” involved living out an old cowboy legend — how to rope a grizzly bear.
“My husband is a cowboy through-and-through,” Kadie Briggs said with a laugh. “We rope calves and doctor calves and all that. He’s used to heavier, harder rope when he’s roping, and this was just a little cotton soft rope that we had in the back of the truck. He just cut it off into three pieces, and when he threw it, it didn’t go very far because it wasn’t heavy, but he got it around their necks.”
By that point, another neighbor had stopped to lend a hand.
“He had seen what was going on and he brought in a 50-gallon plastic barrel,” Kadie said. “The second we put them in there together they just literally curled up around each other. They didn’t cry anymore. There were no noises from them. They were happy as clams.”
The Briggs family drove the barrel of bears back to their home nine miles down the road. A few minutes later a FWP biologist met with them to pick up the orphan cubs. By that time their kids had already named them — Curly, Moe and Larry, after the three stooges.
“I have teenage kids and a 20-year-old daughter,” Kadie said with amusement in her voice. “Of course they were named.”
The lone female cub seemed to be the “feistiest.”
“She was the one who just kind of dominated over the two males,” Kadie observed.
FWP staff then assumed control of the three cubs, which were transported them to a wildlife center Saturday morning.
“The cubs are still only nursing and the wildlife center staff immediately made a specialized formula for the bears,” an FWP news release states.“ FWP is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find permanent placement for the cubs at an accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoo or facility.”
“Grizzly bear cubs cannot be released back to the wild,” the FWP release noted. “These cubs will be frequently handled for bottle feeding and will quickly habituate to humans. This would pose a significant human safety risk and drastically lowers their ultimate success in the wild.”
It may seem unusual to those who don’t know the west; that a ranching family who has experienced first hand how damaging a grown grizzly can be would be willing to save three cubs, and genuinely hope the best for their futures. Life is never as simple as the slogans would lead you to believe.