I was in the living room and my wife was in the kitchen when Riley started barking out in the yard. It wasn’t your standard “deer” bark, either, so when I heard Molly yell, “Riley, no!!!” I jumped up and ran for the door. The local coyotes were hanging around our place and I was worried that our retriever was in trouble with the wild dogs.
By the time I made it outside the barking had stopped, and Molly and Riley were standing near the massive cottonwood that shades the northwest corner of our home.
“Coyotes?” I asked.
“Grizzly bear. A big one.”
It turned out that when Molly opened the back door and went outside, Riley and the bear were in a face-off on the lawn. When Molly saw the grizzly, she yelled at Riley. When the bruin saw Molly, he high-tailed it off into the woods.
We live with bears here in Montana’s Flathead Valley. Our 27 acres sit at the base of the Swan Range, with lush meadows, dense woods, and a little creek that acts as a travel corridor between the mountains to our east and the fertile valley to our west. Grizzly bears are commonplace, as are black bears, while Montana’s other apex predators - wolves and mountain lions - also swing by on occasion. In fact, you could say we’re right in the middle of a major predator zone.
Fortunately, there’s not much to worry about as long as everyone - two-legged and four - follows the Golden Rule and treats the neighbors with respect. And truth be told, that isn’t as hard as you might think. I keep the grass short around the house, so it’s pretty clear what we claim as our personal territory. Except for the rare bear or lion who cuts across the edge of the yard, the various denizens of Big Sky Country tend to respect our boundaries.
If you don't live here, though, it can all sound a little scary. Lions, wolves and bears has a familiar ring to it; a Dorothy-esque “lions and tigers and bears” refrain that echoes off into the far reaches of our subconscious. We’re conditioned to fear the unknown, while our distant ancestors, who lived every single day with nature in the raw, had no choice but to acknowledge that tooth & claw are formidable risks. I’m not sure if our unease around big predators is some sort of encoded genetic imperative, or whether it’s as simple as common sense, but it certainly speaks to the importance of forethought and awareness.
At the end of the day, maybe that’s why I’m comfortable living here. Bears, lions and wolves are a risk I understand. I know the landscape and I have a pretty good feel for how to handle whatever problems might arise. It’s funny, but the things that worry me, and that worry so many of my friends here in the West, aren’t the threats we’ve evolved with over tens of thousands of years, but the ones that we’ve never seen before.
For example, while we treasure our public lands, which are both an economic engine and a boundless source of personal freedom, those lands are coveted by rapacious profiteers and free market fundamentalists. If we don’t stand firm, they’ll be auctioned off and we, as Americans, will lose our shared title to the Last, Best Place.
The Flathead also depends on clean water, yet we allow monstrous trains hauling toxic Bakken crude oil to snake along the Middle Fork, and through the southern edge of Glacier National Park, where a derailment and subsequent spill would be catastrophic for the valley and our local economy.
Even more importantly, our civilization is rooted in 10,000 years of climate stability. America grew strong and flourished under a stable climate, yet we seem committed to dumping obscene amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, assuring that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will melt; that our world-renowned trout streams will run low and hot in the summer; that our forests will succumb to drought and insects, and our wildfires will grow ever larger and more catastrophic.
These aren’t the same perils our ancestors faced. Climate change, public land transfers and exploding oil trains don’t stroll hand-in-hand through the subconscious like “Lions and tigers and bears!” We can’t fence them out, or scare them off with a warning shot. But here in northwest Montana, these are the threats that keep me up at night.