Grizzlies, Wild Places, and Fly Fishing

Looking into the Scapegoat Wilderness and the grizzly corridor, from the lake in front of our family cabin.

Copyright 2012, Kenneth H. Lokensgard

The latest newsletter from MidCurrent alerted me to an article published last week in the Billings Gazette, titled  “Yellowstone says it may need to import grizzlies to improve genetics.” In the article, staff journalist Brett French discusses Yellowstone National Park’s draft progress report to the UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Committee.  He notes that the Park plans to increase efforts to eradicate non-native Lake Trout.  Of course, this is of interest to any angler. But French’s revelation that the Park may import grizzly bears from other regions, to increase the gene pool of its somewhat isolated grizzly population, is of equal interest to this fly fisher.

I grew up in grizzly country.  My extended family shares a property in Glacier National Park, and my immediate family shares a cabin on the southern edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness complex in Montana.  Both areas are teeming with black and grizzly bears.  This was not so much the case, when I was a kid.  I remember playing with other young cousins in the woods above Glacier’s Lake MacDonald, near our property.  Neither us, nor our parents gave much thought to the potential danger of bears at the time.  At our place bordering the Scapegoat, my sisters and I did not play very far from the cabin, but we certainly spent more time alone in the woods (it only takes a short walk to be out-of-sight of anyone at the cabin) than I would ever allow my child to spend today.

There are many reasons for the increase in bear populations.  There are many reasons, too, that these bears range a bit more widely than they did when I was a kid (one of these reasons is the obvious fact that the greater number of bears means a greater need for them to range for food, and grizzlies, in particular, are capable of ranging very, very far).   In mentioning the isolation of the Yellowstone grizzlies in the Gazette article, French alludes to the fact that the other, large grizzly population in the lower 48 states inhabits a wilderness corridor that runs from the Scapegoat Wilderness, through the Bob Marshall and Great Bear wilderness areas, through Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Reservation, and finally into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.  With national forests and other areas of little human habitation bordering this corridor, the bears can range even further.

All of this means that I fish my home waters near Glacier and near my family cabin with great care these days.  While I wold hope that most do the same in the Yellowstone National Park area, I suppose it may be even more important for them to do so in the future, if the Park brings in more bears.  The is not a bad thing, however.  As one naturalist pointed out (just who this was, I’ve forgotten), creatures such as grizzlies are what make the wilderness truly wild.  Personally, I’d much rather fish in a place that is wild, where the trout I seek are part of a healthy ecosystem, than in a more tame place.  Tame places often mean tame fish — not fish that are easy to catch, mind you, but fish that have seen many humans, many flies, and who have been hooked and released far too many times.

For the reader interested in the grizzlies of Yellowstone and especially the Glacier National Park/Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex corridor, I recommend Doug Peacock’s The Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (1990).  The Vietnam-era Army Special Forces medic writes with tremendous feeling about wild places, conservation, and the place of grizzlies in our world (click here for an interview with Peacock, from National Geographic Adventure).  Not surprisingly, since this is a fishing blog, Peacock happens to write about fly fishing as well. I leave you with a passage from the book:

Before I had time to retrieve the brown nymph, I was hit again by an even larger fish.  I forgot about the cold, and I played the pound-and-a-half fish for a few minutes before I let it go.  This had been the best trout fishing I had yet seen up here.  This high basin must have been loaded with game, I thought. In addition to the black bear, I had seen signs of lots of deer and elk on the way up.  But that was for another day: I was cold and it was sleeting.  I wanted to drop down out of this cold and build a fire. My fingers were no longer functioning (Peacock 1990, 65).

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