As grizzly bears proliferate in Montana, tourists follow

A small community navigates the challenges posed by enthusiastic bear-watchers.

  • Bordering the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, Tom Miner Basin is prime grizzly bear habitat. The number of bruins roaming the basin has increased dramatically over the last ten years.

    Louise Johns
  • A sow grizzly and her cubs pass through the Anderson Ranch, half a mile from the ranch's headquarters, in this photo captured with a camera trap. In the basin, the bears have everything they need to stay well-fed: vegetation, berries, caraway, carrion and, depending on the year, white bark pine nuts. A bear’s life is dictated by the food it finds, and cubs will learn from their mothers what to eat.

    Louise Johns
  • In the fields of the B Bar Ranch, visitors, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers have discovered the thrill of seeing bears up close. But the spike in tourism has brought with it challenges. For example, the road where people congregate is a dead end, so traffic tends to clog the road with vehicles coming and going.

    Louise Johns
  • A large sign posted alongside the road by the Tom Miner Basin Association informs people of important rules: drive slowly, do not trespass, respect property and keep a safe distance from wildlife. The B Bar Ranch also has an educational sign on the fence line where many of the visitors park their vehicles.

    Louise Johns
  • Two-year-old Hasell and four-year-old Esme Ramirez, Malou Anderson’s daughters, sell lemonade in front of their home on the Anderson Ranch. Esme, who heads up the lemonade stand, recently corrected a tourist, telling him he was watching a grizzly bear, not a black bear.

    Louise Johns
  • Malou Anderson is the caretaker of the Anderson Ranch. She manages vacation rentals, coordinates ranch events and leads the Tom Miner Basin Association. She also finds time to go riding across the region’s rolling hills.

    Louise Johns
  • Tourists have the best chance of spotting grizzlies during the late summer and fall months, when bears are eating as much as they can in preparation for a long winter of hibernation.

    Louise Johns
  • Hannibal Anderson grew up in Tom Miner Basin and raised a family with his wife, Julie, on the Anderson Ranch. When he was young, seeing grizzlies was very uncommon.

    Louise Johns
  • Two grizzly bear cubs dig for caraway root in a cattle pasture in Tom Miner Basin.

    Louise Johns
  • “When you grow up, (the grizzly bear) is like the boogey man,” said Tony Brady, with a laugh. His perception changed when he first saw grizzlies in Tom Miner Basin. For him, what’s special about being here is seeing the animals in their natural habitat, in one of the few places where they’re still wild.

    Louise Johns
  • Malou Anderson is the third generation living on her family's ranch in Tom Miner Basin. She walks above her home with her two daughters, Hasell and Esme. Families in the basin are navigating the challenges brought on by the influx of bear-viewing crowds.

    Louise Johns
  • A school group watches bears from Tom Miner Basin Road. Guides in the area have taken advantage of the educational opportunities.

    Louise Johns

 

Tony Brady grabbed his binoculars and stepped out of his SUV, parked on the shoulder of Tom Miner Creek Road, in southwest Montana, on a chilly September morning last year. In the distance, a few brown dots milled around the meadows of the B Bar Ranch in the upper Tom Miner Basin, just northeast of Yellowstone National Park. Through binoculars, the dots resolved into a group of one of America’s most iconic creatures — grizzly bears.

The view was a stark contrast to Brady’s home in Macon, Georgia, where he’s lived his whole life. “The very first time I was here, we saw six bears out in that field,” he said. “The guy next to me said, ‘You shoulda been here last night; there was 13 out here.’ ”

The number of bears has drastically increased in the Tom Miner Basin over the last decade. And tourists like Brady have followed, congregating to watch the animals. That has presented challenges to local residents, creating more traffic and bringing people who drive too fast on narrow county roads, trespass on private land, litter and get too close to the bears.  

Plentiful food may explain the surge in grizzly numbers. The basin is home to an abundant supply of a non-native plant, caraway, with a calorie-rich root that grizzlies like to dig up and eat. Bears in the area have probably been eating caraway for a long time, said Kevin Frey, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but within the last 10 years or so, both species have proliferated. Caraway thrives in the irrigated lowland fields of local ranch land, and as grizzlies forage for the plant’s roots, its seeds drop and scatter, allowing it to flourish again next year. “I’ve had collared bears that have traveled hundreds of miles for food,” Frey said. “But when food is ample enough, they stick around.”

The bears of Tom Miner Basin are most visible in the late summer and fall, during a period called “hyperphagia,” when they’re packing in as many calories as possible before winter hibernation. Naturally, then, that’s when tourists in search of grizzlies swarm the basin, too.

Locals worry that the confluence of humans and bears puts both species in a dangerous situation. “People not from the basin are often unmindful of the risks posed by their very presence, their speed, and their activities to humans, livestock and wildlife,” said Maryanne Mott, owner of the B Bar Ranch. “Fortunately, so far, this has not led to an incident, but I fear it is only a matter of time.”

Community members have asked law enforcement to patrol the area during the late summer and fall evenings, but third-generation rancher Malou Anderson said police aren’t there every night. She added that local people have a responsibility to help inform visitors about the bears. “I think it’s good to use this as an opportunity to share and have a conversation and be more open, as opposed to cranky, closed off locals that don’t want anyone up there,” Anderson said. “We try to be more present as locals, to tell people what’s going on.”

Anderson’s father, Hannibal Anderson, grew up in the Tom Miner Basin. When he was a child, it was very uncommon to see bears. Now, with grizzlies rambling throughout the area, “the landscape feels more complete and has more heart and energy in it,” he said. And that’s created a desire to learn more, felt by tourists and ranchers alike. “There is a much greater interest in understanding what’s going on in the community. People are paying attention.”

Louise Johns is a Montana-based photojournalist and master’s candidate in environmental science and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana.

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