“When you ask the question, ‘Who are the greatest hikers in American history?’, M.A. Sanjayan began, “Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have to be at the top of the list. If they were to return to this world and do their hike again, there’s only one place they’d visit where they’d see the same plants and animals, and find the terrain little changed – the Rocky Mountain Front and Crown of the Continent. Today, you can hike in their footsteps and see the same things that they saw.”
Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is a place of awesome contrasts, a majestic convergence of the Northern Rockies and Great Plains that creates one of the richest ecosystems in the Lower 48. The Nature Conservancy defines the Front as a 300 by 50 mile swath from northern Montana through southern Alberta. This transition area of foothills makes ideal habitat for many of mega-charismatic mammal species of the west – elk, moose, black bear, wolves, cougars, lynx and wolverine – the same animals that Lewis and Clark encountered. The region also acts a wintering range for higher elevation animals like mountain goat and bighorn sheep that migrate here from other sections of the vast Crown of the Continent ecosystem, which includes the Flathead River watershed, Glacier and Waterton National Parks, and large swaths of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia.
It is also the last dominion of the plains grizzly.
When most think of grizzly bear habitat, they picture high mountain meadows in the northern Rockies or forlorn Alaska coastlines. But that was not always the case. Not so long ago, grizzlies wandered as far south as the Mexican border, and eastward to the Great Plains of eastern Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. In the spring of 1805 when the Corps of Discovery left their winter camp in present-day North Dakota, they were warned by the Mandan people of the fearsome predators that awaited them to the west. Little could have properly prepared them for the animals that awaited them. On May 14th, Captain Lewis described one of the Corps’ early encounters with a grizzly:
About 4 in the afternoon we passed another small river on the South side, near the mouth of which some of the men discovered a large brown bear, and six of them went out to kill it. They fired at it, but having only wounded it, it made battle…in an instant this monster ran at them with open mouth; the two who had reserved their fire discharged their pieces at him as he came towards them, both of them struck him, one only slightly and the other fortunately broke his shoulder; this however only retarded his motion for a moment. The men, unable to reload their guns, took to flight, the bear pursued and had very nearly overtaken them before they reached the river. Two of the party betook themselves to a canoe and the others separated and concealed themselves among the willows, reloaded their pieces, each discharged his piece at him as they had an opportunity. They struck him several times again but the guns served only to direct the bear to them. In this manner he pursued two of them separately so close that they were obliged to throw aside their guns and pouches and throw themselves into the river, although the bank was nearly 20 feet perpendicular. So enraged was this animal that he plunged into the river only a few feet behind the second man he had compelled to take refuge in the water, when one of those who still remained on shore shot him through the head and finally killed him.
This encounter was solidly in the plains of Garfield County, some 200 miles east of the Rockies.
Biologists believe that nearly 100,000 grizzlies once ranged from the Rockies through the Great Plains. In their eastern range, they relied heavily on the vast buffalo herds as a food source. Thanks to the decimation of the buffalo and relentless hunting by frightened settlers, the grizzly were eliminated from most of their original range; most those that remained were driven to the mountains, far from human encroachment.
There are countless places where hikers can access the varied topography along the Rocky Mountain Front and have a chance to come upon a plains grizzly. Sanjayan likes using Pine Butte Swamp Preserve as a base. “The Nature Conservancy has a property there, Pine Butte Guest Ranch, which is convenient to many hikes that take you into a very real wilderness—and home at night to a warm shower and a soft bed.” The Pine Butte Swamp Preserve is the largest wetland complex along the Front, a 15,500-acre montage of foothills prairie, rocky ridges of limber pine and juniper, spruce-fir forests, mountain streams, glacial ponds and spring-fed fen (or swamp). Situated just west of the town of Choteau and adjoining the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Pine Butte provides ideal foraging ground for grizzlies. The bears descend from their winter hibernation lairs in the mountains in the spring to replenish their energy stores among the easy pickings – berries, roots and the like — of the swamps and prairie land. Most will return to the mountains in the summer as foraging improves there. (Hiking on the preserve itself is seasonally limited to prevent disturbing the bears.)
“Much of the private land around Pine Butte (over 5 0,000 additional acres) has been secured for wildlife through conservation easements,” Sanjayan added. “The bears need a great deal of uninterrupted open land to range upon – as much as 250 square miles for a mature male. It’s the Nature Conservancy’s goal to secure enough high quality bear habitat in the region to sustain the populations, and maintain critical linkages between public and private lands that enable bears to continue their seasonal movements. If you visit now with your children, it should be much the same when they return with their children.”
Two popular day hikes around Pine Butte are Clary Coulee and Our Lake. The Clary Coulee Trail climbs a bench that offers perspectives of both the endless plains to the east and high limestone walls of the Front Range to the west. From the head of Clary Coulee, the front unfolds before you to the south and east. Clary Coulee presents the transition zone that makes the region so unique is presented in stark relief. The hike to Our Lake lets you access to one of the few alpine lakes that can be reached from the eastern side of the Front. The trail meanders past several waterfalls; once you reach the lake, you’re likely to see mountain goats scrambling about the talus slopes. If you pack a fishing rod along, Our Lake’s cutthroat trout are eager to take a fly or spinner.
Dr. M.A. Sanjayan is Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy. He is originally from Sri Lanka but at an early age his family moved to Africa, which is where he grew up attending high-school and discovering his passion for wildlife. He completed his Ph.D at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he did his thesis work on genetics and demography with Dr Michael Soule, one of the founding fathers of the field of Conservation Biology. After a short stint at the World Bank, Sanjayan joined TNC in 1999, first as the Director of Science for the California Program, and later was named one of three Lead Scientists for the organization as a whole. He splits his time between the Science Office and the Marketing and Philanthropy Department of The Nature Conservancy. His primary responsibility is to communicate the scientific and conservation breakthroughs TNC is pioneering to a broad, external audience and to donors and supporters of TNC. Further, he is responsible for recognizing trends and risks identified by the global scientific and conservation community and ensuring that TNC is not only aware of such trends but is able to deal with them appropriately. Sanjayan writes a monthly column for TNC titled “Wild Life”, is a frequent contributor to magazine articles, radio, and TV shows and is currently working on a book on poverty and conservation. He also has a faculty appointment at University of Montana where he occasionally teaches graduate seminar classes. Sanjayan lives in Missoula, Montana, where the fishing is excellent and where all the species seen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition are still around.
If You Go…
Getting There: The closest airport to the Pine Butte Swamp Preserve and the Rocky Mountain Front is in Great Falls, Montana, which is served by Allegiant Air (702-505-8888; www.allegiantair.com), Delta (800-221-1212; www.delta.com), Horizon (800-547-9308; www.horizonair.com) and United (800-864-8331; www.united.com).
Best Time to Visit: May through September provides the most consistent weather and best bear viewing opportunities. Higher passes may have snow into early July. In mid-May, The Nature Conservancy hosts the “Path of the Great Bear” workshop at Pine Butte with noted grizzly expert Dr. Charles Jonkel.
Accommodations: The Pine Butte Guest Ranch (406-466-2158; www.pinebutteguestranch.com) is an ideal base camp for exploration of the Rocky Mountain Front. Several motor lodges are also available in Choteau, including The Stage Stop Inn (888-466-5900; www.stagestopinn.com).