ARLEE — Bryce Andrews needs a three-cornered hat.
Not for some Revolutionary War re–enactment, but to keep straight which of the three worlds in which he works has precedence at the moment.
Last Wednesday, the hat was turned to rancher, as he struggled to attach a front-end loader to his tractor. The ranch south of Arlee is bordered by electric fencing that will highlight a workshop Andrews will lead when he switches to field director of People and Carnivores, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing conflicts with wildlife.
And in a couple of months, Andrews will don his writer’s cap for the publication release of “Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear.” It’s his second book, after “Bad Luck Way” which told the story of his years on a Montana cattle ranch whose owner was determined to adapt to a growing wolf population.
“It’s a weird line I walk between different worlds,” Andrews said. “I come to this work from a decade-long stint working and managing ranches. I have a tremendous respect for people living and making a living off the land. I understand how it forces people to make difficult decisions about wildlife, particularly bears. But that’s not what I was raised to do. As much respect as I’ve developed for it, it’s not my story."
Andrews grew up in Seattle. He had family and friends in Montana, including his godfather Pat Zentz, a Billings-area rancher and well-known sculptor. Andrews credited Zentz for instilling a way of seeing landscape from both practical and aesthetic points of view. Zentz also helped Andrews gain enough horsemanship to talk his way into a ranch hand job in the Madison Valley.
He moved up to managing ranches and eventually owning one of his own in the Bitterroot Valley. But the challenge of turning livestock into meat has always been a struggle for him.
“You take a couple hundred calves, lavish care and attention on them, and then take them to the feed lot and do nothing but count the money,” Andrews said. “I couldn’t achieve that numbness, that callousness. That’s not how we should do it. I still want to be capable, but not callous.”
He also saw firsthand the difficulty ranchers face when wild elk tear down fences and raid haystacks. He worked out the economics of defending domestic livestock from predators when a ranch can only afford one cowboy per 500 cows to turn a profit.
He resolved the conundrum by going to work with People and Carnivores, combining his credibility as a cowboy with his passion for wilderness. The group’s executive director, Lisa Upson, pointed him toward the Mission Valley. The grizzly bears of the Mission Mountains had learned to raid the increasing acres of corn local farmers were growing. One dairy farmer, Greg Schock, reported 16 grizzlies feeding in his 80-acre field.
Andrews took on the task of designing and building a new kind of electric fence that was both more economical and more effective at deterring grizzly corn raiders. In the process, he learned the story of Millie, a grizzly sow that had a catastrophic encounter with a shotgun-wielding human. Andrews used the incident to display the competing needs of grizzly bears and humans in a landscape both desire.
“For me, I live, work and recreate in grizzly country, where people are actually having trouble with grizzly bears,” Andrews said. “And I still think the bears deserve to be here. I don’t look at grizzlies as something I have to put up with. And I think most people, if asked in a constructive, calm way, don’t want an entirely domesticated landscape. There are easier places to farm or raise cattle than Montana. People love it because they love wilderness or they’ve got family here. They don’t want to change the things that make it wild.”
That means taking on risks of dangerous weather, dangerous wildlife and uncompetitive market factors. Andrews said he doesn’t have a good answer for how to balance those risks. But he has been able, under his writer’s hat, to express the tradeoffs of defending agriculture and defending wilderness.
Andrews packs a lot of emotion into “Down from the Mountain,” particularly fear. Entering the wall-like rows of corn knowing a grizzly bear might hide inside, or trying to untangle electric fence from a slow-rolling irrigation sprinkler big enough to crush him, he conveys the dread and stress of standing in the presence of power. Grizzlies eat corn like people do, shucking away the husk and silk and nibbling the kernels off while rotating cobs with their 3-inch-long claws. They also create whole chambers of gluttony where they snap off and glean every stalk. Bears may stay in cornfields for days, consuming so much sugar they become obese and their teeth fill with cavities.
He also describes the loyalty Schock and fellow farmers feel toward their land, livelihoods and culture. All farmers feel a deep pressure to get out of the tough business, to subdivide their lands and grow houses instead of cows or corn. Self-employed, they don’t have pension plans or safety nets unless they built them themselves. Andrews recounts conversations when the farmer hasn’t had a day off in six months, yet still reiterates how having grizzlies around matters to him even as they eat thousands of dollars worth of his corn.
“I never wanted to write so much that I started feeling chair-shaped,” Andrews said. “I spend a couple of hours writing and then I want to be outdoors, accomplishing something practical. And you spend enough time doing some miserable, physical labor and you want to sit down and write.”
That restlessness translates into a sense of urgency in the book, as Andrews tallies the growing pressures of climate change, landscape management and economic forces reshaping places like the Mission Valley. The area could become a crucial link for grizzlies to expand from their stronghold of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem into the virtually grizzly-free wilderness of the Bitterroot Ecosystem to the south. It also endures growing popularity as a tourist corridor connecting Missoula, Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park, and a real estate market for people who want scenic homes on hobby farms.
“This is a really crucial time,” Andrews said. “What we do in the next 10, 20 or 50 years matters a lot. We need to connect the places that can still harbor grizzlies. But to what degree are we willing to inconvenience ourselves? We’re great at doing things and taking action. But this takes collective restraint. We are at our worst at collective restraint. Continually not doing things over generations — that’s the hardest thing for us to do.”
Andrews will host a book release party on April 16 at Montgomery Distillery in Missoula.