Out of Bounds

Grizzlies Reclaiming Old Haunts

This is just the most recent example of the bears reoccupying range where they historically lived, but haven’t for 100 years or more

By Rob Breeding

Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains are a lovely place. The range is a chunk of sedimentary rock uplifted millions of years ago, rising steeply out of the plains of north-central Wyoming. 

The Bighorns are easily accessible via Highway 14 from Sheridan or Greybull, and for the adventurous, Highway 14 Alternate out of Lovell. This alternate route isn’t for the faint of heart. In places it’s terrifying, more like a mule trail climbing out of Grand Canyon than a highway for actual motor vehicles.

Trailers, RVs and others pulling oversized loads should stick to the main road. 

Once the steep passage is behind you, cresting at about 9,000 feet, the Bighorns level off into a world of meadows with patchy timbered stands that grow into forests on the higher ridge lines. In spite of the elevation the country is relatively flat and inviting for a variety of activities. 

My favorite is fly fishing the forks of the Tongue River. These are quiet meadow streams, sometimes crowded with anglers, always crowded with cutthroat trout. You do need to keep an eye out for moose, which are numerous on the Bighorns and quite fond of the stream bottoms as well.

Easy access. Lots of wildlife. Great campgrounds and also plenty of room for dispersed camping if you need more space. It’s just a great spot to beat the heat for Wyomingites and Billings-area Montanans when summer turns the valleys into convection ovens.

It has one other feature. The Bighorns are considered free of grizzly bears. That’s a bit uncommon for that part of the world. 

From atop the Bighorns, you get a fine view of the Yellowstone Plateau to the west which is well within walking distance for a bear. The Pryor Mountains, a range that looks every bit a sedimentary-rock reenactment of a slab of lake ice tilted up against the shoreline at 45 degrees by winter squalls, is just north of the Bighorns.

There are plenty of amazing places to hunt and fish and camp on the west side of the Bighorn Basin, and many folks take advantage of that country. All of it, however, is griz country, and playing in griz country requires a heightened degree of caution. 

It just feels as though you can relax a bit more — even sleep in a tent — when you’re camping somewhere grizzlies aren’t. 

There have been rumors of griz in the Bighorns for years, and there’s probably some truth to those rumors. Bears, especially young males, are prone to wander. Some likely have wandered as far as the Bighorns in the past, though until there’s confirmation of breeding females in the range, the bears aren’t yet there in the biological sense. 

Last week Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists confirmed the presence of a griz in the Pryors, separated from the Bighorns by just the Bighorn River. Left to their own devices the bears are going to swim, and if a female bear arrives, she’s going to find those wide Bighorn meadows just as welcoming as oven-avoiding summer campers. When she has cubs the occupied range of grizzly bears will expand eastward from Yellowstone by about 100 miles.

That Pryor griz is just the most recent example of the bears reoccupying range where they historically lived, but haven’t for 100 years or more. There was also a griz sighting in Shields Valley last week, and in June a momma griz and her three cubs took a stroll through the town of Ulm near Great Falls.

I’m not prepared to declare the once dangerously endangered bears recovered. But the trajectory is clear. The bruins are definitely recovering.

This will pose a new set of challenges for wildlife managers and the people who live and play in areas the bears are reclaiming. Without the bears, the Bighorns are a “pop a cold one” kind of place.

But those mountains could be griz country soon.