Friday, June 03, 2016


It is well-known that the best way to exclude unwanted populations is to address the habitat.  If there is no place to shelter or to eat, animals and insects will move out.  This is a matter of considerable anguish for humans in cities where nearness to jobs and the cheapness of living can smash into each other, as they are in San Francisco where techie workers have pushed out artists, poets, and other traditionally low-pay people, who often have temperaments that cause them to value and attach to unusual and low-status places.

People assume that population pressure among multiplying, protected, grizzly bears is what is driving them down to the flats.  But let’s consider the interface: is there anything driving people up into the mountains?  What about rising population pressure in cities, but emptying of the prairie by industrial farming with machines and chemicals?  Shrinking small towns have dynamics and cravings of their own.  The romantic seeking of spiritual renewal in mountains means backpackers everywhere.

The east slope of the Rockies is an ecotone, meaning it is slanted up towards the mountains.  The four towns that abut Glacier Park (Heart Butte, East Glacier, St. Mary, Babb) are all at about 4,500 feet of altitude.  All occasionally have bears in town.  

Browning is at 4377.  Valier, just off the rez, is 3816.  With a little strategic sheltering and a good growing season, you can grow a tomato in Valier.  In fact, the garden plunder late in the season is enough to attract raccoons.  The Sweetgrass Hills rise to 6983.  Logan Pass is at 6,646.

Bears den as high as the tree-line which can be higher than 7000 feet, or recently a few bears have denned down along river bluffs where soil is easy to dig.  “North- central Montana lies in the severe climate of the "chinook wind belt" along the east slope of the Continental Divide. It is distinguished by being too cold for Pinus ponderosa, but having extensive Populus tremuloides groves and Pinus flexilis woodlands.”  A populus tremuloides (quaking aspen) cluster is a great place for a nap: softly fluttering music, soft bedding.  Approach with caution.

Grizzlies, being large animals, logically eat large animals, whatever takes the least effort.  Carrion, of course, is the easiest.  If wolf packs are in the area, they may abandon kills or a bear is big enough to run them off and take over.    Cows will chase bears, esp. if there are calves.  Cows can’t climb fences, but a bear can, so confined livestock is more vulnerable.  Electric fences are effective if they are carefully built, but I read an amusing account of a bear stung by a single strand, swatting it on the principle of smashing a hornet.

Blue camas is a meadow plant that grows maybe five inches under the surface.  The grizzly needs its claws for this.  No doubt there are more corms and rhizomes that bears eat but that people pay little attention to anymore.  Most of it has been eliminated by human ag.  Cow parsley and other understory growth is often edible for a bear.  Vegetation needs water, so that patterns the location of growth.

Of course, dearer to bears even more than meat, are berries.  The advantage of an ecotone is that they ripen in sequence according to altitude, beginning on the sun-warmed river bottoms and going on up to the highest vegetation in the mountains.  Chokecherries along the water, sarvisberries (related to huckleberries) all the way to the top, stickery bull berries along the lower fields, thimbleberries up high.

The human population along the East Slope has varied greatly over the centuries.  At first were the nomadic tribes who followed the buffalo up and down the slopes and north to south along the buffalo trails.  When Ryan Heavyhead and Narcisse Blood made their maps of old-time camp spots, they were along waterways and marked by big patches of sarvisberries, which were carried by the people both internally and externally (dried) and naturally physiologically “planted” near camps.  Berries will freeze-dry on bushes.

Tribes had no livestock at first except dogs which could evade bears and sound alarms, and the People didn’t stay in one place very long.  Fish, as in the great salmon migrations on the west side, were not a main food for bears or Blackfeet.

When the wave of depopulation due to smallpox left whole villages of people dead in their lodges, carrion eaters had a bonanza.  Because the disease had jumped to humans in Europe through domesticated animals, it left North American wildlife untouched.  For a little while, grizzlies were kings of the prairies — except for the challenge of a healthy adult bison.  For a little while there were no buffalo jumps and the piskuns whitened with bones.  This was before the railroads and guns wiped out the bison to eliminate the tribes and also eliminated bears on the prairie.

Scattered Europeans had at first come up the rivers and west from Hudson’s Bay, fur-hunting.  The Great Falls of the Missouri which would give their name to a city were teeming with grizzlies when Lewis and Clark came through.  The bears knew nothing about guns and the guns of the time were limited.

The Homesteader Act of 1862 was urged by railroads to increase population enough to make a profit and produce tax-paying citizens.  It was also hoped free land would take some of the energy out of the Civil War (’61-’65).  The Act specifically forbade anyone qualifying if they had borne arms against the US.  That meant British soldiers as well as Southerners.  For American veterans, used to firearms and hardship and anxious to start families, which were the only way to create protection in old age, homesteading was a God send.  The east coast populations fed by the Irish potato famine — among other forces in Europe — were bulging.

In Europe the practise had been for farmers to live in towns, going out to their fields daily.  Homesteading specifically required people to live on their new fields and pastures, isolated.  My grandmother lost her first baby because she was tempted to take a wagon ride to town out of loneliness which triggered birth too early and there was no help nearby.  Towns were thirty miles apart because that’s about as far as it was practical to travel for supplies with a team and horses.

It was decades before the bears were driven up into the mountains, just after WWI.  The railroads brought people to the Big Hotels in the major parks and for a while the bears fattened on the food-laden dumps, so engrossed in eating that people sat on bleachers with electricity lighting the spectacle.  Bears have always had a dimension of “spectacle” which nowadays causes traffic jams in Parks.  After a few bear incidents, the dumps were closed and camping became highly regulated, frustrating the bears.  

Even so, a black bear got into my cousin’s car parked in a Washington state campground, evidently was stuck in the window for a while, and shredded his nice leather upholstery.  He and his family are hikers and campers, but essentially city people.  Some badass bears destroy to relieve frustration or curiosity or in the throes of hyperphagic phases before hibernation when they are food junkies, craving and driven.  This period coincides with what some people consider the climate climax of the mountain year when it’s cool and the leaves are bright.

If hunting were restored, in a highly regulated form, bears would soon learn to be cautious.  With tools like drones, the humans could also learn caution.  But the real force behind intrusion into the mountains is international corporations looking for mineral resources.  If livestock growers used to low fees for grazing are cut off or charged more, they are going to react about like bears used to garbage. 

The real interface between people and grizzlies is political and it is as intense and dangerous as fighting a bear.  Much of it is covert.  Bureaucrats are not used to Saturday night fights and react with horror when they get a nasty email.  But people who are used to controlling herd bulls do not proceed with diplomacy.  The result in town meetings is mixed.  As in "mixing it up." 

The “impact,” to use a favorite bureaucrat word, creates and sustains NGO’s of many kinds.  If there is no tax money to do what is needed, then voluntary citizen groups can raise money, but then they get to call the tune.  They are often city people with good connections.  They feel urgently that the planet is in danger.  Locals are generally invested in denial and the status quo.  They are likely to be aging and resistant to change.

There’s a book in all this.  Maybe a shelf of books.  Probably whole long bibliographies.

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