Tom Ross: Lewis and Clark walked in the land of the great white bears
March 8, 2013
Steamboat Springs — While admiring my colleague John Russell's photograph Friday of a bull elk resting in a stand of juvenile aspen trees, I couldn’t help but wonder how the large ungulates who winter in the Yampa Valley would cope if apex predators, timber wolves and grizzly bears, still were present.
A common perception is that mountain lions and coyotes already depress deer and elk populations. But many wildlife biologists would say that the predators at the top of the food chain have a cascading effect on other species that keeps populations of many species in balance.
For example, biologists studying the impacts of the return of wolves to the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park might tell you that the wolves have bolstered numbers of some prey species by making life tough on coyotes and their young. At the same time, the wolves improve the quality of the range by keeping elk numbers in check.
Of course, it's one thing to gab about the food chain in the Rocky Mountains and an entirely different thing to walk among wolves and grizzlies.
My hiking buddies and I often have wondered aloud whether we'd really be happy to see the return of grizzlies to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Backpacking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, where grizzlies might be prowling the edges of bands of sheep at the northern end of the range, is a different experience from hiking in the Park Range of Colorado. Even if one never sees a sign of a grizzly, just knowing they are present shifts one's state of mind.
Anyone who wants to glimpse what it was like to travel among grizzlies and wolves when the Rocky Mountains truly were wild can get a feel for it by reading "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," as compiled by Bernard DeVoto and published by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1953.
On July 11, 1806, captain Meriwether Lewis, and a small group of the larger party that had split off to explore an alternative route through the Rockies, was marveling at the number of bison along the Medicine River in what is now northern Montana.
"I sincerely believe that there were not less than 10 thousand buffaloe within a circle of two miles around that place," Lewis wrote (the misspellings are faithful to the journals). “I directed the hunters to kill some buffaloe. … By 12 OCk. they killed 11, most of them in fine order."
However, the carcasses might have attracted wolves. After the herd had departed, Lewis noted they were hanging around his camp.
"The wolves are in great numbers howling around us and lolling about in the plains in view at the distance of two or three hundred yards," he wrote.
During this time, Lewis had grown very concerned about one of his men who he had dispatched to track some of their best horses that he suspected had been stolen by natives. By July 15, the man referred to as McNeal finally returned to camp without the horses.
"A little before dark McNeal returned with his musquet broke off at the breach, and informed me that on his arrival at Willow Run he had approached a white bear within ten feet without discover(ing) him the bear being in thick brush."
The bear encountered by McNeal wasn't actually white in color — members of the Lewis party had adopted the term used by the natives, who were reacting to the silver-tipped hairs on the grizzlies' coats. As Lewis returns to his narrative, McNeal had been thrown from his panicked horse and quickly regained his feet in the time it took the bear to rise onto its hind feet and prepare for battle.
"With his clubbed musket, he struck the bear over the head and cut him with the guard of the gun and broke off the breech," Lewis wrote. "The bear, stunned with the stroke, fell to ground and began to scratch his head with his feet."
That bought time for McNeal to climb a willow tree and wait until the bear finally walked off. All that remained for McNeal was to summon the courage to hike two miles across open ground to catch his horse.
There's nothing like an apex predator to make a person feel fully alive. And copies of DeVoto’s condensed version of “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” are readily available. You should look one up.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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