MTPR

'Down From The Mountain' With Bryce Andrews

Sep 18, 2019

The grizzly is one of North America’s few remaining large predators. Their range is diminished, but they’re spreading across the West again. Descending into valleys where once they were king, bears find the landscape they’d known for eons utterly changed by the new most dominant animal: humans. As the grizzlies approach, the people of the region are wary, at best, of their return.

Down From The Mountain

The following highlights are from a conversation with Bryce Andrews about his book, Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe or podcast.

Sarah Aronson: If you were a grizzly bear, what would you want your diet to consist of?

Bryce Andrews: If I was the grizzly bear, I'd want my diet to be varied and to be wild. I'd want it to come from every part of the landscape, everything from the things you find along creeks to the insect colonies at the tops of mountains. I'd want to eat everything that this beautiful wild place has to offer.

This book concerns Millie, the grizzly bear who comes down from Montana's Mission Mountains, which is a range south of Flathead Lake in the northwest corner of the state. And early on in the book, you write, "To my way of thinking, there are two kinds of mountains in Montana. Those that still contain grizzlies, and those that have lost them."

What's the argument you're setting up here?

I suppose that one of the things I'm getting at is that the landscape, particularly the wild, undeveloped landscape of our mountain ranges feels entirely different when we have this high order, dangerous, difficult carnivore in them, from when they don't. And for me to have every species there, particularly the grizzly, it matters. We have, I think, an obligation to try to maintain populations in places where they can still survive.

And at one point in the book you visit a wildlife rehabilitation facility and you talk with a manager named Lisa, and you ask her how you can help and this is what she says: "I don't know what you can do to help except get the word out. A famous bear has a better chance than one nobody knows about. Famous bears are harder to kill."

Why was Millie a good subject for the book, and can you tell us a bit about her story?

Certainly. Millie is a good subject for a book because her story, which is simple, and is particular to her, is really a microcosm for a lot of what's going on in the American West right now. She has an interesting story. She was a bear born in the Mission Range, grew up using every corner of that landscape, eating wild foods, crisscrossing the landscape in these amazing ways that grizzlies do. But she was drawn out of that pattern and into another one because of encountering a field of corn next to the base of the mountains. So Millie's story, in many ways, is about how this collision between the domesticated and the wild landscapes that we have here in our state, plays out in the life of an animal, and what that means for her chances of survival, what that means for the details of her day-to-day life, and how that puts her in conflict with the people living on this landscape.

And in terms of the trajectory of the book, we find you building an electric fence to keep grizzlies out of this corn field, and I wanted to know what you meant when you wrote, "Bears treat fences differently."

Well, I meant something really practical. So I went to work for People and Carnivores a few years ago, and it's an interesting, small conservation group that basically works on all of these practical projects aimed at reducing conflict between people and large predators. And that's how I found my way to the corn field, and that's how my life, my story crossed with Millie's, and where this book comes from.

What I meant when I said that about fences is that grizzly bears have a really unique way of exploring the world. They have these fantastic senses of smell, they have a lot of really formidable physical attributes, but they also approach a fence in a way that allows you to turn them, to exclude them from a field or a piece of land using an electric fence while still letting other wildlife move through. So, a bear approaches a fence differently in that if it's electrified and if they touch it with their nose, they almost always get turned back by it. If it's barbed wire or literally anything else, they'll find a way through. So it was this kind of unique way of approaching fences and the landscape that led me to think that we could do something interesting up at that corn field.

One of the other fascinating parts, as you're working on this fence, is you stumble into what you call a labyrinth shaped by the hunger of bears, and just visually and sensually, can you describe that?

Yeah, totally. Absolutely. So bears would come to this field to eat. And I think it's important for a listener to be able to picture what that looks like. So bears have this really cool way of eating corn. Depends on who you're talking to. If you're a corn farmer, not so cool, but they husk it and they eat it like we do. So they take these paws with these huge claws on, and these paws that are strong enough to just break the spines of deer and elk with a swat, and they'll delicately husk this corn and eat the kernels. And they'll do that ... Like in this field, there were up to 16 grizzlies at a time, and that many bears can do a lot of damage. About 20% of this 90-acre corn field was being knocked down by bears and they would do it in interesting patterns.

So what they would do is they would go in there, they would eat, they would stay in there, they would day bed in there, eat, and they would lay down these circles in the corn and then connect them with little pathways where they're moving through and knocking the stalks down. And you'd end up with this thing that was like basically the scariest, but also most oddly beautiful labyrinth you could ever imagine. This series of rooms and chambers and hallways cut through eight-foot-tall corn. And to be in there, not advisable by the way, but it was a really profound experience because you could see the physical manifestation of wild creatures colliding with the domestic crop. And that's something I think about all the time, both as a rancher and a conservationist. And to see it in the flesh like that, it's just really fascinating and made me want to tell the story.

About the Book:

The story of a grizzly bear named Millie: her life, death, and cubs, and what they reveal about the changing character of the American West

The grizzly is one of North America’s few remaining large predators. Their range is diminished, but they’re spreading across the West again. Descending into valleys where once they were king, bears find the landscape they’d known for eons utterly changed by the new most dominant animal: humans. As the grizzlies approach, the people of the region are wary, at best, of their return.

In searing detail, award-winning writer, Montana rancher, and conservationist Bryce Andrews tells us about one such grizzly. Millie is a typical mother: strong, cunning, fiercely protective of her cubs. But raising those cubs—a challenging task in the best of times—becomes ever harder as the mountains change, the climate warms and people crowd the valleys. There are obvious dangers, like poachers, and subtle ones as well, like the corn field that draws her out of the foothills and sets her on a path toward trouble and ruin.

That trouble is where Bryce’s story intersects with Millie’s. It is the heart of Down from the Mountain, a singular drama evoking a much larger one: an entangled, bloody collision between two species in the modern-day West, where the shrinking wilds force man and bear into ever closer proximity.

Bryce Andrews
Credit Colleen Chartier

About the Author:

Bryce Andrews is the author of ‘Badluck Way,’ winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Reading the West Book Award for nonfiction, and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. He works with the conservation group People and Carnivores and lives on a farm.