In a one-on-one fight between an unarmed person and a grizzly bear, you’d have to give odds to the bear. Guns obviously change that equation. But there are also many less obvious human threats to grizzlies—like corn.
Take farmer Greg Schock’s cornfield in western Montana. His ripening corn entices grizzlies down from the mountains in the summer, which disrupts their traditional feeding and migratory patterns. As more homes and farms fill up the area, the chances of an unhappy interaction between human and grizzly soar. Author Bryce Andrews, who works with the People and Carnivores conservation group, saw the impact of such an encounter when he was installing a new type of fencing at the cornfield. His Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear is a beautifully written account of the episode, which left a mother grizzly shot dead and her cubs unprotected.
The book toggles between the mother bear’s journey toward her fate and Andrews’ own effort to find a new way of living in harmony with the natural world following his disenchantment with cattle ranching. The movements of the bear, dubbed Millie by wildlife officials, could be tracked retrospectively because she wore a radio tag. The mystery of her death is never completely solved, but Andrews is able to explain the context.
Andrews conveys his passion for the West’s landscape and inhabitants through his sensitive writing, which avoids either anthropomorphizing the wildlife or villainizing ordinary people. These bears kill fawns to eat; these Montanans, many of them Native Americans, love the bears even as they recognize the need to control and sometimes kill them.
Andrews’ sympathy is broad, but he is certain that the outcome is tragic. He is angry about Millie’s tortured death and about its effect on her cubs. Still, hope remains at the end, as Andrews finds his own calling on a small farm that he believes will allow space for the bears to thrive. His book is a testament to his compassion.