From the North Fork of the Flathead River to the committee rooms of Helena, Bob Ream stood up for the wild places and things he loved.
The University of Montana professor, state legislator, and avid backpacker, who chaired both the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Montana Democratic Party, died on Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. Ream was 80.
Natalie Dawson, the current director of UM’s Wilderness Institute and Ream family friend, said her mentor remained vigorous right up to his cancer diagnosis and beyond.
“He got to see the Bud Moore film right before he passed away,” Dawson said, referring to a new documentary about the pioneering Forest Service leader. “He was naming everyone in the film.”
Ream founded the Wilderness Institute in 1974 and its undergraduate program in Wilderness and Civilization has enrolled more than a thousand students. Dawson said he regularly attended the annual program rendezvous, most recently last summer at the Benchmark trailhead in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Ream taught wildlife biology for 28 years in Missoula, including two years as interim dean of the UM College of Forestry from 1993 to 1994. He was a member of the state House of Representatives from 1983 to 1997.
In the early 1970s, Ream set up a reporting system for wolf sightings. He saw the northwest edge of Glacier National Park and the surrounding national forest was a hot spot, and focused his research attention there. With fellow researcher Diane Boyd, he started trapping and tracking the first wolf packs dispersing out of the Canadian Rockies into Montana.
Retired UM wildlife biologist Dan Pletscher explained that study was groundbreaking. Previous observations involved relatively simple environments where wolf packs fed on caribou herds in the Yukon or moose in Michigan.
“Here we had an assemblage of six possible prey species in Glacier, plus six predators,” Pletscher said. “That was a much more complicated system than elsewhere. The information Bob and the Wolf Ecology Center put together helped them predict what the results of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone might be.”
Diane Boyd came to Montana in 1979 as a graduate student just after Ream had captured the first known wild wolf in Montana. She spent subsequent years with the Wolf Ecology Project helping Ream document how dispersing wolves would modify their new surroundings. Now a carnivore specialist with the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Kalispell office, Boyd said she and Ream were convinced wolves would naturally reach Yellowstone without human assistance if given enough time.
“He was a very kind and patient soul,” Boyd said. “I’ve never seen him really get too angry, although he was very passionate about wilderness preservation and wildlife conservation. He wore so many hats in his lifetime. Many of us are good at something, but Bob went out and had about 20 careers and did them all excellently.”
The news passing drew accolades for Ream from across the state. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, sent an email on Thursday evening calling Ream a “champion for Montana.”
“His belief that our public lands, wildlife, rivers and streams belonged to every Montanan – not just a select few – is a lasting legacy that will benefit and inspire our state for generations to come,” Tester wrote. “Bob was one of the first people I met when I decided to get involved in public service, and I am grateful for his life of leadership.”
Ambassador and former Sen. Max Baucus added Ream was a “true, salt-of-the-earth Montanan, public servant, and ardent conservationist.”
“For many years, Bob was at the forefront of many landmark efforts to enhance our state’s outdoor heritage, protect special places, and further our understanding of Montana’s rich biological diversity,” Baucus wrote. “Bob was a giant amongst Montana Democrats who reached across party lines to fight for the little guy. Mel and I offer our deepest condolences to his family and our profound appreciation for his many great contributions to our great state.”
During his time in the Legislature, Ream was the chief sponsor of the state stream access law, restitution requirements for wildlife poaching, and a system for Montana’s state agencies to cooperate with federal Superfund cleanup projects.
His four years on the Fish and Game Commission coincided with the surging population of reintroduced wolves and their impact on elk herds and livestock. That, combined with his leadership in the state Democratic Party, prompted the Republican-controlled Senate to reject his bid for a second term on the commission in 2013.
Former Cinnabar Foundation executive director Jim Pozewitz said many wildlife experts prefer their animal subjects to human company, but Ream was determined to “stay embedded in all parts of this democracy.” He recalled an episode during the 1989 Legislature when Montana was under national scrutiny for its law requiring killing of all bison that migrated out of Yellowstone National Park in winter.
“He carried the bill to stop the slaughter,” Posewitz said. “When it had to get its final vote, those insisting every buffalo be killed were hammering it mercilessly. Then it was Bob’s turn to close the debate as author. He took the microphone, and sang: ‘Buffalo Bill, won’t you come out tonight?’ That brought the House down.
“That’s the kind of guy he was. If there was nobody left to stand, Bob Ream would stand up and get it done.”
For Bob Ream's full obituary, please see page B3.