WISDOM, Mont. – Dean Peterson, a rangy fourth-generation rancher with a handlebar mustache, is used to factoring in all sorts of challenges as he works his vast spread in the Big Hole Valley. Summer wildfires that can sweep down the pine-blanketed mountains to the west, harsh winters that can endanger his thousand-plus head of cattle.
Yet in the back of his mind these days is a threat most of his forefathers never faced: grizzly bears. Settlers pushing West had all but exterminated the hulking predators by the time Peterson's great-grandfather arrived here in the late 1800s.
A year ago, however, a trail camera in the nearby forest snapped a grainy photo of a grizzly crossing a stream, marking the first confirmed sighting in the valley in a century. Then in May, Peterson was stunned to see one lope across a snow-dusted road as he drove a four-wheeler a few miles from his property.
"It will happen," the 51-year-old rancher says of the looming presence of grizzlies. And he is equally matter of fact about what they'll mean for both him and his neighbors. "It will be more difficult to run cattle."
Biologists and their maps agree: The bears are coming to southwestern Montana. Since 1975, when this icon of the American West was listed as an endangered species, grizzlies in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem to the south have more than quadrupled their range and population. Well to the north, grizzlies in the Glacier National Park region also are spreading out.
The bear pioneers are now migrating so far that they are viewed as the vanguard of a possible union between the two populations, a connection that could help ensure the bears' health and genetic diversity. At some point, conservationists hope, grizzlies might even set up shop in the Idaho wilderness, recolonizing a small portion of the vast territory they once occupied.
But as grizzlies fan out from the parks that have long been their refuges, they are encountering more people, roads and development – and more temptation in the form of trash and livestock. While their presence raises the risk to humans and makes activities like hunting and hiking more perilous, the reality is that bears tend to be on the losing end of interactions with humans. At least 58 died in 2016 and 51 as of mid-November this year, most killed by people who accidentally hit them with cars, crossed paths with them while hunting or shot them for harming animals or property.
Americans have spent four decades and millions of dollars to rescue grizzlies from the brink of extinction. Now, experts say, one big question is whether people can live alongside them.
"They're big, they can be dangerous, and they compete with us for some food resources," said Steve Primm, a conservationist who has forged relationships with Peterson and other ranchers in the Big Hole Valley, trying to get them to see the animals as something with which they can coexist. "If we're living with grizzly bears, then that's showing that we've got quite a strong commitment to living with the natural world."
Conflicts with people helped to drive the Yellowstone grizzly population to as low as 136 in the 1970s, according to government figures. It has since officially rebounded to around 700, and federal biologists say the number could be as high as 1,000. Such progress prompted the Interior Department to delist that region's bears this summer, with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana native, hailing the turnaround as proof that the Endangered Species Act works.
Lawsuits are now seeking to overturn the government's action, citing the Yellowstone population's genetic isolation and the spiritual importance of the species to Native American tribes. Some also point to the grizzlies' growing footprint and contend that climate change has caused natural food sources to dwindle, putting the bears in danger as they pursue elk gut piles that hunters leave in woods in the fall or calves born on ranches in the spring.
Frank van Manen, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist who leads the government's Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, said research does not support that argument. The Yellowstone ecosystem has reached its "carrying capacity," he said – forcing male grizzlies, in particular, to seek more space. Their movement is creating new challenges.
"Is it realistic to expect this population to expand beyond where it is now?" van Manen asked. "It becomes more of a society question. It has to do with tolerance, and it has to do with where do we want grizzly bears?"
Delisting could entail a new risk, given the possibility in all three states in the Yellowstone ecosystem – Montana, Wyoming and Idaho – of allowing grizzly trophy hunting at some point. While federal scientists say limited hunts would not necessarily harm the overall population, critics decry what they see as an unnecessary additional threat.
Of prime concern to some are the far-flung bears on the ecosystem's periphery in Montana, the ones that could meet up with their brethren to the north. The bear photographed ambling through the narrow lodgepole pines near Peterson's ranch last year is among those that scientists think could eventually help make a historic link.
The rancher does not see it in such sweeping terms. "I just look at it as another one of God's creations," he said, sitting in his living room, where a silky charcoal wolf pelt and the heads of other animals he has bagged adorn the walls. "It's just another species out there, and yeah, it's had a hard time. It got hunted near extinction, because it was hard for people to live around."
That doesn't have to be the case in the 21st century, conservationists say. A project in the Blackfoot River Valley, south of Glacier, has for years used electric fencing, carcass removal and range riders – people who sweep the land, monitoring for bear activity – to reduce conflicts. Property owners have employed similar techniques in an area just north of Yellowstone. One ranch there, its fields visible from a public road, has even become a prime grizzly viewing spot.
"I've seen a lot of bears," said van Manen, smiling in the late-afternoon light as he watched a female grizzly and two cubs romp down a hill on the ranch and then stand on their hind legs to scan the horizon. "But I get excited every time."
Beaverhead County, where Peterson's ranch sits, is a different scenario. The local dump consists of two fly-swarmed open containers that could be an accessible bear buffet. Bear-resistant garbage cans are not the norm. Elk hunters, who try to obscure their scent and walk quietly through the woods there, aren't as accustomed to carrying bear spray despite studies showing it is a powerful deterrent that can save human and bear lives.
And as the biggest beef-producing county in the state, Beaverhead has lots of cattle grazing on ranches and in nearby forests. Dead livestock is typically left to decompose or is buried; either way, the carcass can attract grizzlies.
The potential for problems worries Primm, who wants to see the bears "get off on the right foot" in the Big Hole Valley. He knows grizzlies that find one food source near humans will come back for more.
Primm, 49, is the conservation director of a small organization called People and Carnivores. Though a Missouri native, he has lived in rural Montana for two decades and fits in, with his wide-brimmed hat and dusty Ford pickup. It was wolves that first brought him to the Big Hole Valley – and into contact with Peterson.
The two men met at a gathering of an area conservation alliance. Tensions were high; the federal government had reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, and within a decade they had begun thriving, spreading and sometimes killing livestock. Resentful ranchers blamed the government and conservationists for, as Primm recalls, "inflicting these wolves on them."
Peterson was one of those who had lost cattle. Even so, he agreed to approach a neighbor and ask her to let Primm's group build an electric fence, hung with a line of flags called fladry, to protect her calves. The effort would have been impractical on his own spread – not that he expected much on his neighbor's property.
"I actually laughed about it," Peterson said. But he said the fence worked. "I kind of thought, this guy's someone who's trying to make a difference. . . . He's darn sure working in my direction, so I'm willing to work in his direction."
Nowadays, Primm estimates that about half the area's ranchers will hear him out when he talks about livestock guard dogs, electric fencing or other ways to deter bears. He keeps his advice gentle, mindful of the wolf era. He might mention the occasional elk hunting he does, but not his personal opposition to the idea of grizzly hunting.
"We're never going to know a rancher's operation as well as that rancher," Primm said. "So, you know, they're going to be the ones figuring out what really works."
With support from People and Carnivores, that local alliance is distributing bear-resistant trash cans to area residents. It also recently set up a compost dump for livestock carcasses at the edge of a desolate state-owned property where snowplows are kept. Kim Bingen, a resident who was hired to collect carcasses, ended up with 47 dead animals from ranches this spring. Though the service was free, she said it wasn't always an easy pitch, in part because ranchers don't want others to know about the mortalities in their herds.
Peterson has started sending carcasses to the compost dump – some, anyway – and he thinks more of his neighbors will decide to do the same. "We've been leaving them to rot for years," he said. "But as we get more bears, we're going to change our habits."
That's what Primm said his job is about: changing habits. He's seen this in the forests just north of Yellowstone, where he has built hundreds of "bear poles" – one long log attached high up to two trees in an H-shape, where hunters can hang their catches out of bears' reach so the animals don't associate campsites with meat. In those areas, he said, bear-resistant food storage has become the norm, and more hunters, though not enough, carry bear spray.
Southeast of Peterson's property, in spots chosen by the U.S. Forest Service, Primm is erecting the same kind of 19-foot-tall structures. He said he hopes they will help bring hunters around. But he knows this will not happen overnight.
On a cool, overcast morning, in a quiet spot miles down an unpaved road, Primm and building partner Scott Lafevers took a break after finishing the ninth pole. They turned as a gray pickup rolled up to a small campsite of tents, campers and archery targets closer to the road.
In the truck bed lay a massive buck elk and a small deer. The camouflage-clad hunters inside, relatives who'd come from Oregon and North Dakota, spilled out and soon had the elk cinched up on a shorter pole to start skinning it.
Someone asked what the new, taller poles were for.
"So that bears can't reach it," Lafevers told them.
The hunters nodded. They said they were vaguely aware that grizzlies had been spotted in the area, though they weren't much concerned.
"As long as you're able to kill 'em, and they're not protected like the wolves," one quipped. Primm stood at a distance, listening silently.
Another hunter, Duane Ryckman, jumped in. Sharing space with grizzlies was about having a "happy medium" – one that took both the animals' and people's needs into account, he explained. The group had bear spray at camp, he said, but he shook his head when asked whether he carried it while hunting.
"No," Ryckman said. "We carry a pistol."