Grizzly bears are a divisive topic in the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park – Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. They are a treasured symbol of the wild or a menace to us all, depending on who you ask.
In late June, it was announced that the grizzly bears living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are no longer threatened. The protections that kept them safe from hunting will be lifted. Is this a great success story of the Endangered Species Act, or a premature decision? Again, that depends on who you ask.
I have only seen grizzly bears once in my life. That is despite living in Montana, in bear country. They are elusive creatures who prefer to avoid humans. Personally, I would love to see more of them. That is why I travel to Yellowstone National Park so frequently. Yellowstone is one of the few safe havens left to many of the animals that used to roam throughout North America. Grizzlies were hunted to the brink of extinction through the 19th and 20th centuries. They most likely would not be around today without the creation of parks like Yellowstone, and the Endangered Species Act.
Today, the grizzlies of Yellowstone are a huge tourist draw. “Where can I see the bears?” is a question I often hear in the park. Of course, there is no way of knowing when or where you will find a bear, be it a grizzly or the more common black bear. When I saw “my” grizzlies, I was not expecting it at all. Driving through Yellowstone in the summer, you become used to various animal jams. Bison jams, bear jams, elk jams. Whenever there is an animal on or near the road, cars stop and pile up. When I found myself in a jam on my way to Yellowstone Lake, it was one in a series of many that day. I expected bison, yet again. Then I saw her.
She stood in a clearing along the road, a small section of green grass and a few downed trees in an otherwise densely forested area of the park. I always knew that grizzlies were big, but seeing her in person still left me in shock at her immensity, her strength. She strolled through the grass, exuding power and grace with every step, a striking intelligence in her dark eyes. Behind her trailed a tiny cub, fur dark with water from playing in the lake. She was a curious cub, standing on her back legs for a better view of us strange and new creatures.
That encounter happened last summer. The cub would be a year old now if she survived the tumultuous childhood of a wild grizzly. Young enough to still be living under her mother’s protection for at least another year. Every time I drive past that clearing, I see them in my mind. Mother and cub walking across a downed tree. Cub stopping to watch us, then bounding to catch up to mom.
I visited that clearing again a year to the day I saw them. The mountains were hazy with smoke from distant wildfires, but the grass was as lush as I remember it on the day of the grizzlies. I parked my car in a pullout and gazed into the forest, imagining I could see a shining black eye, a glimpse of brown fur. In a year or two, the cub’s mother will send her away to find her own territory.
If she stays within the invisible boundaries of the park, she will be safe. If she ventures past that imaginary line, the delisting could be her undoing. Will she raise cubs of her own, passing on the wisdom she gained from her mother? Or will a bullet put an end to her life before it has truly begun? The forest kept its secrets hidden that day, and I drove toward the smoky mountains with a heavy heart.