Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear

Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear

by Bryce Andrews


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“Andrews’s wonderful Down from the Mountain is deeply informed by personal experience and made all the stronger by his compassion and measured thoughts . . . Welcome and impressive work.” —Barry Lopez

The story of a grizzly bear named Millie: her life, death, and cubs, and what they reveal about the changing character of the American West
An "ode to wildness and wilderness" (Outside Magazine), Down from the Mountain tells the story of one grizzly in the changing Montana landscape. Millie was cunning, a fiercely protective mother to her cubs. But raising those cubs in the mountains was hard, as the climate warmed and people crowded the valleys. There were obvious dangers, like poachers, and subtle ones, like the corn field that drew her into sure trouble.
That trouble is where award-winning writer, farmer, and conservationist Bryce Andrews's story intersects with Millie’s. In this "welcome and impressive work" he shows how this drama is "the core of a major problem in the rural American West—the disagreement between large predatory animals and invasive modern settlers”—an entangled collision where the shrinking wilds force human and bear into ever closer proximity (Barry Lopez).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780358299271
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 135,383
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

BRYCE ANDREWS is the author of Down from the Mountain and Badluck Way, winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Reading the West Book Award, and a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. He works with the conservation group People and Carnivores.

Read an Excerpt

Sheer peaks mark the eastern edge of Montana’s Mission Valley. Gray Wolf, the southernmost, is a fist. East and West Saint Mary’s are shoulders without a head between them. Kakashe is a rampart, with higher pinnacles overtopping it from behind like breakers cresting a seawall. All are made of gray stone, with fissures, walls, and drops that give pause to the most intrepid climbers. They are quick to gather snow, slow in losing it through summer.

The mountains, which form the eastern margin of the Flathead Indian Reservation, shelter a healthy population of grizzly bears. As fall gives way to winter, these bears climb. Disappearing into well-hidden dens, they wait for spring.

Up there in February, it looks like nothing is passing but time, wind, and occasional ravens, but grizzlies are busy underground. In secret, deep-drifted nooks, they breathe and stir. Sows give birth in darkness.

Sometime around the year 2000—it might have been a winter or two before—in a den smelling of earth and ursine rancidity, a cub was born. She probably had a sibling or two, as grizzlies are mostly born in pairs or trios. Until spring came, the writhing of her littermates and her mother’s warmth were her whole world.

Though much is now known about that cub—her life, movements, and the circumstances of her end—no one can say precisely where or when she was born. It is enough to say that she was born in the high country, into a den that no human found or entered. In this, she was like most bears that have been born in the Missions since the recession of Pleistocene ice revealed mountains to the sun.

Emerging into spring, she was shown by a careful mother how to get about in the mountains. She learned which things were to be eaten and which were dangerous. In time, she descended with her mother across ridges and avalanche chutes toward the valley floor. Down in that settled, domesticated landscape, she smelled and saw human beings for the first time. She learned to be wary of gravel roads and highways and to move discreetly among farms and the scattered houses of rural subdivisions.

She slept one more winter in her mother’s den, woke, and made the seasonal round as a yearling. Then, breaking with her family, she went out alone. She grew into adulthood, weighing nearly five hundred pounds and measuring three feet tall at the shoulder. Rising on her hind legs to pluck apples from a tree, she could reach higher than most people. Her forepaws were wide and black padded, and they hardened as she went about mapping the smells, contours, and hazards of her home range. She lived a grizzly’s solitary life, and if she was seen at all by the men and women who lived in the valley, it was as a disappearing flash or a shadow against the night.

In 2002, in the blue light that follows dusk in late summer, she left off foraging and walked down from the foothills into a tangled aspen grove. Crossing Millie’s Woods—the copse for which she’d soon be named—the bear came to a place where she could see farmstead lights spread across the floor of the Mission Valley, glittering like shards of a bottle dropped from a great height.

While darkness thickened, she shuffled along a well-worn game trail, giving a generous berth to barnyards and houses. Hearing the faraway barking of dogs, she kept to the low ground of potholes and sloughs.

She came in search of ripening apples and the chokecherries weighing down the branches along the banks of irrigation canals. Descending step by cautious step, keeping pace with the night, she left the Mission Range behind. In doing so, she walked out of a wilderness that has remained essentially unchanged since the end of the last ice age, and into an unforgiving arcadia. The primeval valley—the fertile, deep soil that had succored native people and grizzly bears for thousands of years—was hidden by roads, power lines, prefabricated ranch-style houses, tilled fields, and uncountable miles of barbwire fence.

Cars and trucks hurtled day and night along Highway 93. Except for the timbered corridors along streams, the land was settled, cleared, and cropped. There were pastures and hayfields, gardens and chicken coops, pigsties, grain bins, and trash piles—all manner of things that could lead a bear into conflict with people or livestock, and therefore to ruin. The farms were small by Montana standards, with most holdings measuring between twenty and eighty acres. The landscape was not paved over or entirely ruined for a grizzly bear’s purposes, as parts of the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys are, but it was a difficult, dangerous place to survive.

Table of Contents

1 The Valley 1

2 Newcomers 15

3 Field and Fence 67

4 High Summer 89

5 The Edge of the Stand 109

6 Seeing 129

7 Reaping 147

8 Fallow 187

9 Visiting 199

10 Hunters 213

11 Millie's Place 229

12 The Exhibit 245

13 Near the Woods 257

Author's Note 271

Acknowledgments 273

A Conversation with Bryce Andrews 275

Questions for Discussion 280

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