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Leaving Room for the Wild

Large predators are as important to us as raging rivers, searing deserts

On a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, I met a man who every day confronts our confusing relationship with large predators.

Like an old scratch tree, Barry Gilbert wears the signs of a grizzly-bear attack more than 20 years ago. The sow charged the Utah State University biologist after he surprised her on a brushy slope in Yellowstone.

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More remarkable than his survival is that Mr. Gilbert never blamed the bear for the attack. And he still goes out in the field among bears every summer.

"I'm afraid of bears, very afraid. You should be too," he says. "But these are incredibly intelligent animals that have been sacred to people for tens of thousands of years. To wipe them out would be tragic."

I've always shared Gilbert's sense of wonder about large predators. And I've righteously disdained the attitude of fearful intolerance that has brought many of them to the brink of extinction. That attitude persists in places like Idaho, where big, rough-and-tumble men, many of them hunters, say they don't want any part of a plan to bring back grizzlies to the wilds of the Selway-Bitteroot country - even though when given the choice, a grizzly will usually avoid a human.

"Cowards," I'd have called them not long ago. But that was before I hiked in grizzly country.

This spring, I spent a few hours in the Shoshone National Forest east of Yellowstone. I was alone as I parked at the trailhead and read the signs warning of grizzly bears. Usually, I love being the only one on a trail, but I longed to see another person. Heading up the trail, my senses went on red alert. Every sound, movement, and smell held meaning. I reached down to grasp the comforting - if illusory - heft of a stone. I got off the thickly vegetated trail, which ran along a noisy stream, and scrambled up a nearby ridge. The last thing I wanted was to surprise a bear in a thicket.

I never saw a bear that day, but I discovered that hiking in grizzly country is a whole lot different from hiking in the tame woodlands of my youth, where snakes and poison ivy were the biggest threat.

I felt vulnerable and in need of a weapon. Not much different really than those who have killed predators to the point of oblivion.

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But that brings me back to Barry Gilbert. Why is he so tolerant? Perhaps he accepts grizzlies because he faced his worst fears about them and survived.

Driving away from that trailhead, I realized that fear wasn't the only thing I, like Gilbert, felt in grizzly country. I also felt more joyous and alive than I had for years. For a moment I was that young, wide-eyed boy again, wandering through the Missouri woods at dusk, both hunter and hunted.

I felt that same quickening last year on a small hill near my home in Colorado. Though subdivisions encroach on it, and though shards of beer-bottle glass glint amidst its lichen-covered rocks, the hill is a wilderness for my five-year-old son and me. We spy on ground squirrels and glimpse mule deer as they melt into the juniper.

But the hill became much wilder the day a local homeowner reported seeing a mountain lion on its dusty flanks. The next time we took a weekend walk, something had changed. "Stay close," I ordered Zachary, unable to conceal my own uneasiness.

Behind every boulder that we had nonchalantly scrambled up the last visit lurked the tawny predator. My mind raced through various scenarios: "If the lion comes toward us," I thought, "I'll put Zachary behind me and wave my arms so I look really big."

The vision of a violent encounter flicked into my mind. I felt the same rush our ancestors probably felt in the presence of a saber-toothed tiger.

We eat animals and can be eaten by them. We compete with them and each other for habitat. Yet animals - even large, dangerous ones - play an important ecological role in the natural world. Perhaps more important, they connect us in a real and vital way with the life around us.

Yes, life would be safer without grizzlies and mountain lions. So would life without raging rivers, craggy mountains, and searing deserts. May we always leave room for the wild.

We eat animals and can be eaten by them. We compete with them and each other for habitat. Yet, to be human, we also need animals - even large, dangerous ones.

May we always make room for them.

* Paul Larmer, senior editor of High Country News, lives in Paonia, Colo.

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