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Destination Nowhere

The most remote spot in the Lower 48 is inside Yellowstone National Park. It's also the goal of our correspondent. What he encounters–and what it says about the solitude backpackers treasure–will surprise you. PLUS: See more of his photos and read a Q&A.

David Gaillard and I met for the first time in the windy parking lot of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Tall and tan, with trim orange hair, Gaillard, 40, lives in Bozeman and works for Defenders of Wildlife. A specialist in five endangered species–the wolf, wolverine, grizzly, lynx, and fisher–he came highly recommended as an indefatigable hiker and ecosystem expert.

Our plan was simple: hike right through the middle of America’s last grand expanse of roadlessness. From the Deer Creek trailhead on the South Fork of the Shoshone River (an hour drive southwest of Cody), we would travel end to end, east to west from the eastern edge of the Washakie Wilderness, up and over Deer Creek Pass, then down Butte Creek to Thorofare Creek. Continuing down the Thorofare northwest into Yellowstone National Park, we’d pick up the South Boundary Trail, dip in and out of the Teton Wilderness, and hike all the way out to Yellowstone’s south entrance. It was perhaps 80 miles of walking.

Not five minutes up the trail we encountered our first pack train. “Best watch yourselves!” bellowed a young, unshaven wrangler trailing six mules. A burly little ranch dog kept the beasts in line. One carried the rack of a large mule deer.

“Seen 11 grizzlies in seven hours!” the cowboy said, spitting a stream of brown saliva. “Sow with cub just a little ways back. So close I could see her lip curled over. Reared up mad as the devil and swatted at my dog.”

Gaillard and I expected bears; in fact, we wanted to see them. Grizzlies are an integral part of what we imagined someplace remote, like the Washakie Wilderness, should contain. Farther up the trail, we came upon the tracks of the sow and cub. They were going our way.

Being October, it was dark at 7 p.m. Not interested in hiking in the dark, we left the trail and stumbled through deadfall and a foot of snow to set up camp. Galliard put our kitchen 100 yards from the tent. After dinner, floundering hilariously in deep snow with dim headlamps, we hauled our food bag up into a tree.

In the morning, we followed the same grizzly tracks toward Deer Creek Pass. At one point, I thought I saw the prints of three different bears and suggested the sow had an infant and a two-year-old.

“Don’t think so,” said Galliard, responding delicately to my ignorance. “Cubs stay with the sow for three years, during which time the mother doesn’t mate.”

The other set of tracks belonged to a lone male or female. Probably foraging far and wide before hibernation.
“Grizzlies have a massive home range, between 300 and 700 square miles,” Gaillard said, and then commenced to sketch out the fall and rise of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.

Before the spread of neo-Americans, grizzlies ranged from Minnesota to the Pacific and from Mexico to the Arctic. Lewis and Clark saw grizzlies all along their journey, particularly in South Dakota’s Black Hills. At that time, from 1804 to 1806, as many as 100,000 grizzlies roamed the West. But according to Gaillard, fewer than 1,000–that’s one percent of the original population–now live in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, an area, when combined, that accounts for less than two percent of their original range.

Remarkably, these few grizzlies represent an endangered species success story. In 1975, after two centuries of unregulated slaughter, grizzlies were near extinction–fewer than 200 animals existed in the continental U.S.–and the great hump-backed predator was placed on the endangered species list. Thirty-two years later, in March 2007, the Yellowstone grizzly was determined by the government to be sufficiently recovered, and was removed from the list. But not without constant threat. The coming decade will determine whether this controversial decision was good for the bears’ health. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana all hope to legalize grizzly hunting, but this likely won’t happen because of the grizzly’s limited rate of reproduction.

“You probably need something on the order of 50,000 square miles to support a viable, self-sustaining grizzly population that can be large enough–perhaps 2,000 individuals–to deal with the various genetic, demographic, environmental, and catastrophic uncertainties of their existence,” Chuck Neal, author of Grizzlies in the Mist, told me when I interviewed him in Cody. Now in his 70s, Neal is a legendary conservationist who worked for federal agencies for 50 years. A platter-size cast of a grizzly paw sits in his living room. “The single best thing Clinton did in office was to push through the roadless rule.”

In January 2001, the Department of Agriculture adopted the Clinton Roadless Area Conservation Rule prohibiting further road building and logging in the few roadless areas left in the Forest Service system. The rule put about one-third of our national forest lands, 58.5 million acres, off-limits to road construction. According to the Department of Agriculture’s own documents, the roadless rule is essential to protecting the “health and diversity of American forests.”

Conservation groups have repeatedly hailed the rule as one of the greatest policy decisions of the past century. The Forest Service has received more than 2.5 million letters in support of it. One survey showed that 86 percent of anglers and 83 percent of hunters favor it. Yet the current administration has done everything in its power to open roadless areas to logging, drilling, and mining.
“So grizzlies need wilderness to survive,” I summarized.

Neal laughed. “Not exactly. This may come as a shock, but the grizzly doesn’t need wilderness. He could thrive on the outskirts of Cody, but we won’t permit him to do that.”

I think about how grizzlies, when given the opportunity, will gladly exchange the hard work of digging pine nuts for the ease of tipping over garbage cans. Unfortunately for them, we humans don’t like this kind of behavior.

“The grizzly is far more tolerant of us than we are of him,” said Neal. “He needs wilderness as a sanctuary from our intolerance.”

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