Human hunters moved north into what would become Montana on the heels of the receding ice, coming into the Mission Valley when the land was yet raw and studded with erratics. Only the first scrim of vegetation covered bedrock, and generations of men and women watched the river sort cobble from sand. They walked among new willow shoots and dug camas bulbs from fresh-laid, quaternary soil. Like the first trees, the forbears of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Orielle tribes took root in Western Montana as its modern landscape took shape. The Salish were the southernmost of these tribes, and the people most closely tied to the Mission and Bitterroot Valleys.
They wandered and lived between mountains, journeying east for bison and west for salmon that swam upstream from the distant Pacific. They watched old, towering predators disappear like falling stars. Arctodus was gone, and then the dire wolf. Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat, starved for lack of outsize prey. Soon, the people were alone with grizzlies, moose and a few other species in their recollection of the former world.
Their stories echo with old beasts. There was an elk monster living down in the Bitterroot Valley, until coyote killed it. There was a ten-mile serpent in the Jocko Valley, just south and west of the Mission Range, with its mouth at the crest of Evaro Hill, and its stomach near the town of Arlee. Coyote killed that creature, too.
Some things disappeared from their world. Others arrived. Neighboring tribes like the Blackfeet infringed on Salish territory, pushing westward with newly acquired guns in their hands. A wave of illness followed on their heels, more difficult to withstand than Pleistocene winter.
If Salish history were a drum roll, with each quick beat representing a generation between the end of the last ice age and the start of the 20th century, these are the last several taps:
A beat, and the first traders came overland from the east. Another, and a Catholic mission was erected in the Bitterroot.
A beat, and some of the chiefs were making their marks on the pages of the Hellgate Treaty, ceding 19,000,000 acres to the United States Government and reserving 1,245,000 for the tribe. Another, and the mission had moved to St. Ignatius. Forced on by a company of army regulars, the Salish people were marched toward it from the Bitterroot.
A beat, and most surviving Salish were sharing a corner of their former lands with what remained of the Kootenai and Pend d’Orielle tribes. On the Flathead Reservation, they were forced to try their hands at farming. Another, and hungry white men were chewing at the reservation’s fringes, lusting after water and fertile soil.
The Salish bore witness first to the birth and expansion of their cultural and geographic world, and then to its fragmentation. 1887 saw the passage of the Dawes Act by the United States Congress. Thereafter, in the early part of the 20th century, the tribes endured the allotment of the Flathead Reservation, in which the head of each tribal household received title to 160 acres, other adults received 80 acres and the balance of the reservation was opened to non-tribal homesteading and purchase. A rapid liquidation of farmland followed. Before halting the allotment process, the tribes lost more than a million acres that had been guaranteed to them in perpetuity.
That land, initially claimed by farmers and ranchers, has passed to outsiders of every stripe. Today, the reservation boundary includes Amish colonies, the fiefdoms of absentee millionaires, survivalist hideaways, old hippie communes, organic market gardens, and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. A large portion of the fertile soil remains open and in agriculture, though that way of life is threatened everywhere by growth and new construction.
The reservation’s demographic patchwork is overlain by the usual tensions of the American West. Water wars—the largest lasting more than a decade and pitting the Tribes’ treaty rights against the claims of irrigators—smolder in court and flare on ditch banks in late summer. Irreconcilable neighbors squabble over grazing leases and rights-of-way. Noxious weeds make inroads, and must be destroyed. Realtors converge on failing ranches like magpies on a carcass, ready to pick apart and sell the dream.
The reservation is home to people who love grizzly bears and wolves, and others who would see predators wiped out. It holds happy families, paroled criminals, snowbirds, and rednecks. Everyone agrees that the mountains are beautiful. It is perhaps the only point on which they see eye to eye. That, and the fact that as the Mission Valley grows crowded—as its expanse, plentitude, and access to wilderness are fractionated—they all feel a creeping sense of loss.
I drove onto the reservation on a spring morning in 2016, meaning to meet Stacy Courville in person for the first time, and to figure out whether People and Carnivores might be able to work with the Tribes on issues related to grizzly bears and wolves. Cheatgrass was greening in the borrow pits beside Highway 93, the sky was clear, and the soil was dark with snowmelt.
Heading north from Missoula, I climbed the Evaro hill, crossed the reservation boundary, came down through the town of Arlee, and followed the serpentine route of the Jocko River. I tried to sound out the Salish place names on roadside signs, got thwarted by Qawsi Nsiyetkws and Sk’wƚƚɁolqweɁ, and settled for reading the English translations—“Spring Creek” and “Coming Back Down to the Water’s Edge.”
After Ravalli, I flogged my truck uphill to a place where I could see the Mission Valley sprawling northward. Stopping there, I waited for the sun to top the peaks. When it did, and yellow rays spilled over the mountains, I could see the valley floor. Gravel roads crossed it at regular intervals, as if a wide-meshed net had been thrown over all the arable land. Cars and trucks traced the warp and weft, their headlights burning. Houses, barns and outbuildings dotted the panorama, some of them sending up pale smoke. Rising clear of the peaks, the sun flashed on water running in the valley’s many irrigation ditches.
The landscape cannot be called unspoiled, or empty. As of the 2010 census, the Flathead Reservation was home to 28,359 people, with the majority of them living in the Mission Valley. Neither can the reservation’s demographic mix be accurately described as primarily indigenous. Though the Dawes Act was repealed nearly a century ago, the privatization of tribal land has left an enduring mark: most of the Flathead Reservation’s residents are white.
According to the Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have 7,753 enrolled members, with approximately 5,000 members living on the reservation. Non-Indians, then, outnumber Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Orielle people on the reservation by more than five to one. Seen in this light, the houses, barns and canals covering the valley floor are a record of cultural displacement as well as ecological change.
The Tribes prove their immense resilience against this backdrop, struggling mightily to maintain their identity, assert treaty rights, and recover lost land. Against long odds, they preserve a measure of what they have always been.
Damage and hope are evident all over the reservation: the former boiling up in a rash of suicides, or the word “Rapist!” scrawled across a prefabricated house; the latter manifest in a town’s fervent support for its high school basketball team. Those boys, the Arlee Warriors, won the Class C state championship two years in a row, both times beating a private, well-to-do Christian school. Their story ran on the front page of the New York Times Magazine. A motorcade of cop cars, ambulances and fire engines met the Warriors at the reservation’s edge, bringing them home on a rising wave of noise. A siren is a fitting sound; keening and singing, as closely bound to loss as to aid.
Conscious of the place’s long and unjust story, I put the truck in gear and drove into the valley. Roadside fields looked fertile and serene. Passing cars were full of commuters headed for Missoula. To my east, the mountains formed a wall as foreboding and wild as any I have seen, and I followed it north toward the town of Polson.
Driving toward my meeting with Stacy, I knew enough about the Tribes’ approach to wilderness and wild animals to be hopeful. Throughout the 20th century, after seeing their valley opened to settlement and broken out to cropland, foresighted tribal members worked to safeguard the high, steep country on the reservation’s eastern edge. Their efforts bore legal fruit in 1975 with the passage of Tribal Ordinance 79a, a document protecting 91,778 acres of land as the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness Area—a five-mile-wide swath of peaks and cirque lakes running the length of the valley. Borrowing language from the 1964 Federal Wilderness Act, the ordinance prohibited road building, logging and permanent inhabitation in the Mission Range.The gut does right to twist in these mountains.
We can all thank them for it, because the Missions are important mountains. East of the knife-edged ridges at the reservation’s edge, wild country spreads north through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park, into the Canadian Rockies.
The Tribal Wilderness Area is, then, the far southwestern tip of an enormous, untrammeled ecosystem. A wolverine could feel a restless itch in the Yukon, walk south for weeks through forests and over mountain ranges, and come to stand on McDonald Peak looking over the Mission Valley. Just below her, nestled against the foothills, would be Millie’s Woods and the field where Greg Schock grows corn. In all her traveling, the creature would have crossed one major freeway, a pair of two-lane highways and a handful of paved and gravel roads.
With so much adjacent wilderness, it is no wonder that the Missions still contain every fish, bird, plant and mammal that met Lewis and Clark on their trudge across the West. But for all that diversity, anyone who has walked the western edge of the Mission Range knows that the mountains belong to grizzly bears. A certain feeling comes to hikers up there: a tight thrumming in the stomach, a tendency to startle, a consuming interest in shadows.
The gut does right to twist in these mountains. The eyes, flitting to the low shape of a burnt stump, are wise. Science has corroborated what the body knows: a very high density of grizzlies exists in the Missions, particularly near McDonald Peak, northeast of St. Ignatius.
Since 1982, the Tribes have closed 10,000 acres around the peak to all forms of human travel, commerce, and recreation between July 15th and October 1st, annually, with the intention of minimizing disturbance of bears and danger to humans. Nobody enters, and for two and a half months, bears move unseen through the drainages above Post Creek and Schock’s dairy. They drink from the Ashley Lakes and prowl groves of soft-needled larch. Nobody is there to see or bother them. For a little while each year, so long as they keep to the mountains, the grizzlies live unmolested in a vestige of the older world.
Walking into the corrugated steel building that houses the Natural Resources Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the first thing that I noticed was a fish tank built into a wall. Lazy, blunt-jawed rainbows and cutthroats circled, looking through glass at deer skulls mounted on the far side of the hall. A bearskin—splayed and with its mouth wide open—hung on the wall beside the stairs. Climbing to the second floor, I resisted an impulse to sink my fingers into cinnamon fur.
Stacy was waiting in an office wallpapered with maps, behind a desk littered with printouts and telemetry equipment. Sturdy and goateed, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair hidden by a ball cap, he looked up from working to shake my hand.
Walking down the hall, we took chairs at a table in a small meeting room, among shelves crammed with books and bound reports.
“Shannon Clairmont,” Stacy said when a slight, darker-skinned man joined us. “We work together on forest carnivores—wolves, bears, fur-bearers–“
“Pretty much anything that causes trouble on the south half of the reservation,” Shannon added, reaching across the table to shake my hand.
“Right,” Stacy said. “And Shannon, this is Bryce. He’s working for—who is it, again?”
“People and Carnivores.” I said, producing from my notebook a newly printed business card with my name on one side and the group’s logo—a grizzly track overlain on a thumbprint—on the reverse. I felt clumsy handing the card across the table, foolish while the men examined it.
I told them I had been hired by the group to expand their work in western Montana. Confessing that I was by no stretch a biologist, I talked about my experiences running ranches on the edges of Yellowstone, and my desire to work on issues related to grizzly bears and wolves.
Leaning back in his chair, Stacy watched me closely.
“Issues?” he said, crossing his arms and turning toward his partner. “What do you think, Shan—we got any issues?”
Shannon cracked a grin. “Heh,” he said. “Might be a couple of those.”Sometimes he let seconds pass between one thought and another, while I struggled against finishing his sentence.
Stacy launched into a description of the reservation’s wolf packs, noting the home range and history of each, and the number of times they had been “removed” because of their depredations on livestock. Soon, he was warming to a discussion of bears, with Shannon breaking in periodically with details.
Listening, I was struck by the difference between the two men. Stacy’s bearing is ponderous, even grave. Shannon is freer in his movements and readier with his smile. Though he let Stacy do most of the talking that day, Shannon never stopped interjecting in quick, bright bursts. In contrast, Stacy chose his words deliberately, laying them down as a mason sets bricks, examining each one for faults.
Sometimes he let seconds pass between one thought and another, while I struggled against finishing his sentence.
“The Mission,” he said in his methodical way, “has always been grizzly country. It was when I started this job, in ‘95. When I was growing up, too, in St. Ignatius. There were grizzlies then, but we didn’t see them in the valley like we do now.”
“First ten years I had this job, we hardly trapped any grizzly bears. In 2005, we started collaring for research. We still trap for research, but it’s the conflict calls that have gone up.”
“The hardest part,” Shannon added, “is getting people to change their ways, particularly new people moving into the valley. They bring in bear attractants—trash, pet foods, livestock feed.”
“Hobby farms,” Stacy said with a critical shake of his head, and began to describe the most recent of the Mission’s many agricultural and social changes: an influx of small-scale farmers and back-to-the-land escapists that had begun with the turn of the millennium and increased in subsequent years.
I knew something about this latest wave of immigrants. Living in Missoula, I was conscious of a steady northward trickle of men and women in their twenties and thirties. Finding that land on the reservation was fertile and comparatively cheap, these would-be farmers left the city to grow row crops or raise meat in the Mission Valley. They bought property when they could and leased it if they had to, and their produce fed Missoula’s burgeoning local food scene.
One particular place comes to mind, a spread with a hardworking, disorganized charm. It cannot properly be called a hobby farm, but it is smallish, organic, and cast in a new mold. The market garden, planted with a dozen types of vegetable, becomes a quilt in summer. Pastures are divided with temporary electric fence, so that animals can be rotated through them without overgrazing. Chickens run amok. Hogs turn the sod with evident joy. When I was there, I did not want to leave.
That farm looks different than the cow-calf, hay, and grain operations that prevailed in the valley over the last century, and it functions at a different scale. The old-guard shipped off the fruits of their labors by the semi-truck or train-car load, and spoke a language of hundred-weights and commodity prices. The new farmers haul smaller quantities of meat and vegetables to Missoula each week, to restaurants and open-air markets. “Local,” “heirloom,” and “organic” are their sacred words.
Some tension simmers between farmers of the old and new sort. It could hardly be otherwise, when the two groups so often differ over politics, the use of irrigation water, the ethics of growing genetically modified crops, and how to control the weeds that spring from the Mission’s deep soil.
From Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2019 by Bryce Andrews.