Atop a snow-dusted peak in October, a friend and I hear an elk bugle. Scanning meadows below with binoculars, I spot instead a silver-tipped grizzly bear, flexing its massive shoulder hump to excavate glacier lilies. “This is his place,” my friend says. “He owns this country.” Indeed, while we have eliminated grizzlies in so many places, a robust population freely roams the Crown of the Continent, from mountaintops and plunging valleys to fescue prairies and cedar rain forests. Think of these magnificent bears as wary sentinels of change. For millennia they watched over people who honored their power. The Ktunaxa called to the bear spirit for guidance and protection, while Blackfoot traditions tell of the Medicine Grizzly who rescues and nourishes a young boy.
Explorers David Thompson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark learned the ancient wisdom of mutual respect the hard way. After several violent confrontations, provoked by nonlethal musket fire, en route to these mountains, Lewis determined to live and let live: “I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal.” From their silent perches, grizzlies witnessed the first trains to cross Crowsnest and Marias Passes, followed by settlers to populate the Rocky Mountain Trench, and Flathead and Elk Valleys. By the turn of the 20th century, the bear’s outlook dimmed as wildlife was slaughtered across the continent. Here, however, grizzlies persevered into a new era of wildlife restoration, wilderness designation, and cross-border stewardship. Today, they are a source of fierce local pride and the namesake of many businesses and festivals. As the great silvertip disappears into the forest that bright October afternoon, I am the observer, humble and grateful that such a place may yet be found.
— Steve Thompson, writer, Whitefish, MT
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