WISDOM, Mont. - Dean Peterson, a rangy fourth-generation rancher with a handlebar mustache, is used to factoring in all sorts of challenges as he works his vast spread in the Big Hole Valley. Summer wildfires can sweep down the pine-blanketed mountains to the west, harsh winters can endanger his thousand-plus head of cattle.
Yet in the back of his mind these days is a threat most of his forefathers never faced: grizzly bears. Settlers pushing into the West had all but exterminated the hulking predators by the time Peterson's great-grandfather arrived here in the late 1800s.
A year ago, however, a trail camera in the nearby forest snapped a grainy photo of a grizzly crossing a stream, marking the first confirmed sighting in the valley in a century. Then in May, Peterson was stunned to see one lope across a snow-dusted road as he drove a four-wheeler a few miles from his property.
"It will happen," the 51-year-old rancher says of the looming presence of grizzlies. And he is equally matter of fact about what they'll mean for him and his neighbors. "It will be more difficult to run cattle."
Biologists and their maps agree: The bears are coming to southwestern Montana. Since 1975, when this icon of the American West was listed as an endangered species, grizzlies in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem to the south have more than quadrupled their range and population. Well to the north, grizzlies in the Glacier National Park region also are spreading out.
The bear pioneers now are migrating so far that they are viewed as the vanguard of a possible union between the populations, a connection that could help ensure the bears' health and genetic diversity. At some point, conservationists hope, grizzlies might even set up shop in the Idaho wilderness, recolonizing a small portion of the vast territory they once occupied.
But as grizzlies fan out from the parks that have long been their refuges, they are encountering more people, roads and development - and more temptation in the form of trash and livestock. While their presence raises the risk to humans and makes activities such as hunting and hiking more perilous, bears actually tend to be on the losing end of interactions with humans. At least 58 died in 2016 and 51 as of mid-November this year, most killed by people who accidentally hit them with cars, crossed paths with them while hunting or shot them for harming animals or property.
Co-existing with grizzlies
Americans have spent four decades and millions of dollars to rescue grizzlies from the brink of extinction. The question now is whether people can live alongside them.
"They're big, they can be dangerous, and they compete with us for some food resources," said Steve Primm, a conservationist who has forged relationships with Peterson and other ranchers in the Big Hole Valley. "If we're living with grizzly bears, then that's showing that we've got quite a strong commitment to living with the natural world."
Conflicts with people helped drive the Yellowstone grizzly population to as low as 136 in the 1970s, government figures show. It has since officially rebounded to about 700, and federal biologists say the number could be as high as 1,000.
Of prime concern to some are the far-flung bears on the ecosystem's periphery in Montana, the ones that could meet with their brethren to the north. The bear photographed ambling through the narrow lodgepole pines near Peterson's ranch last year is among those that scientists think could help make a historic link.
The rancher does not see it in such sweeping terms. "I just look at it as another one of God's creations," he said, sitting in his living room, where a silky charcoal wolf pelt and the heads of other animals he has bagged adorn the walls. "It's just another species out there, and yeah, it's had a hard time. It got hunted near extinction, because it was hard for people to live around."
That doesn't have to be the case in the 21st century, conservationists say. A project in the Blackfoot River Valley, south of Glacier, has used electric fencing, carcass removal and range riders - who sweep the land, monitoring for bear activity - to reduce conflicts. Property owners have employed similar techniques in an area just north of Yellowstone. One ranch there, its fields visible from a public road, even has become a prime grizzly viewing spot.
Teaching new habits
Beaverhead County, where Peterson's ranch sits, is a different scenario.
The local dump consists of two fly-swarmed open containers that could be an accessible bear buffet. Bear-resistant garbage cans are not the norm.
Elk hunters, who try to obscure their scent and walk quietly through the woods, aren't as accustomed to carrying bear spray despite studies showing it is a powerful deterrent that can save human and bear lives.
And as the biggest beef-producing county in the state, Beaverhead has lots of cattle grazing on ranches and in nearby forests.
Dead livestock is typically left to decompose or is buried; either way, the carcass can attract grizzlies.
The potential for problems worries Primm, who wants to see the bears "get off on the right foot" in the Big Hole Valley. He knows grizzlies that find one food source near humans will come back for more.
Primm, 49, is the conservation director of People and Carnivores. With support from that small organization, an area alliance now is distributing bear-resistant trash cans to residents. It also recently set up a compost dump for livestock carcasses at the edge of a desolate state-owned property where snowplows are kept. Kim Bingen, who was hired to collect carcasses, ended up with 47 dead animals from ranches this spring. Though the service was free, she said it wasn't always an easy pitch, in part because ranchers don't want others to know about the mortalities in their herds.
Peterson has started sending carcasses to the compost dump - some, anyway - and he thinks more of his neighbors will decide to do the same.
"We've been leaving them to rot for years," he said. "But as we get more bears, we're going to change our habits."
That's what Primm said his job is about: changing habits.
He's seen this in the forests just north of Yellowstone, where he has built hundreds of "bear poles" - one long log attached high up to two trees in an H-shape, where hunters can hang their catches out of bears' reach so the animals don't associate campsites with meat.
In those areas, he said, bear-resistant food storage has become the norm, and more hunters, though not enough, carry bear spray.
A long road ahead
Southeast of Peterson's property, in spots chosen by the U.S. Forest Service, Primm is erecting the same kind of 19-foot structures. He said he hopes they will help bring hunters around. But he knows this won't happen overnight.
On a cool, overcast morning, in a quiet spot miles down an unpaved road, Primm and building partner Scott Lafevers took a break after finishing the ninth pole. They turned as a gray pickup rolled up to a small campsite of tents, campers and archery targets closer to the road.
In the truck bed lay a massive buck elk and a small deer. The camouflage-clad hunters inside spilled out and soon had the elk cinched up on a shorter pole to start skinning it.
Someone asked what the new, taller poles were for.
"So that bears can't reach it," Lafevers told them.
The hunters nodded. They said they were vaguely aware that grizzlies had been spotted in the area, though they weren't much concerned.
"As long as you're able to kill 'em, and they're not protected like the wolves," one quipped. Primm stood at a distance, listening silently.
Another hunter, Duane Ryckman, jumped in. Sharing space with grizzlies was about having a "happy medium" - one that took both the animals' and people's needs into account, he said. The group had bear spray at camp, he said, but he shook his head when asked whether he carried it while hunting.
"No," Ryckman said. "We carry a pistol."