Grizzlies Catch a Break in the New West

Later this month, I will have the good fortune of taking a trip to Western Montana, one of my favorite landscapes. With wild rivers, fresh huckleberries, and towering ponderosa pines on my mind, my eyes are drawn to Montana stories. Last week, I read a very good one in the New York Times.

When I became on environmentalist in college, the news out of Montana tended to be grim: clear cutting, open pit gold mining, and overgrazing on public lands. Over the past few decades, Montana has shifted away from extractive industries and toward a more service-based, New Western economy.

 A Development Runs Through It

Communities in Western Montana have boomed, but they have created a new threat to the region’s wild character: development. Now one of the biggest dangers for Montana’s forests and wildlife isn’t logging, it is the ranchette: 640-acre sections of land carved up, built on, and sold to new homeowners.

Plum Creek Timber, the country’s biggest private landowner, has jumped into the act: it is selling off its forest holding at up to $29,000 an acre for land that might generate only $500 for logging.

These sprawling developments are literally in the line of fire when forests ignite. And they leave grizzlies, black bears, elk, and other roaming animals with fragmented and dwindling habitat.

 What this Unprecedented Deal Means for Grizzlies

Luckily, the new West makes for some strange bedfellows and innovative solutions. Last week, Plum Creek announced that it would sell 500 square miles of forest land in Western Montana to the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. It is one the largest deals setting forest aside for conservation in the country’s history.

This is great news for grizzly bears. Grizzlies need a home range of about 200 square miles, and reserving these huge tracts of Plum Creek’s land will give them the wild habitat they need to survive. The deal will be especially good for bears in the stunning, jagged-topped Mission Mountain Range. That bear population is small, and this boost in protection will prevent it from shrinking and inching closer to extinction.

When I go to Montana at the end of the month, I will be staying along the Blackfoot River, the ribbon of trout-filled water made famous by Norman McLean’s “A River Runs through It.” I will keep my fingers crossed for a grizzly bear sighting, but truthfully, I hope the bears steer clear of town and take advantage of their newly protected corridor one drainage to the West.