A Bear's Journey: Traveling 50 Miles Back Home

by Patagonia with Doug and Andrea Peacock
Heart of Winter 2008

The map below depicts the journey of a young grizzly bear from the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park (on the border of Montana and Wyoming) to the Centennial Mountains (straddling the Idaho/Montana state line) 50 miles southwest. The journey to the land where he was raised as a cub is a hazardous trip across major highways, through open river bottoms and past two small towns. Fifty miles was once a short excursion for a grizzly; bears have been known to travel as many as 500 miles. But grizzlies rarely make these big moves anymore. Female grizzlies don’t tend to make them at all; the subadult males in the U.S. who try are generally shot and killed, or trapped and relocated.

Please read "The Bear Who Crossed the Freeway" for a more detailed account of the bear's journey.

A Bear's Journey

The bear begins in Yellowstone National Park. He threads his way across the Gallatin Valley, negotiating streams and roads with great caution. He soon hits the rolling uplands of the southern Madison Range.

2 He descends through the forest toward the open valley bottom, wiggles under a fence, and dashes across Highway 287.

3 The bear steps into the Madison River, swims a swift channel, and scrambles up the riprap on the far side as a few boats drift down the river. He follows a branch of the Madison angling south by southwest another 30 miles, crossing fence lines and skirting cabins.

4 The bear passes a spot where a sheepherder killed his yearling sister. He turns west and lumbers up a long ridgeline. The bear will feed, then travel farther west, below the steep cliffs of the Continental Divide. Occasionally, he hears the whine of an off-road vehicle.

5 He looks out across the huge valley where the railroad and interstate run to the snowcapped peaks of the Bitterroot Range 50 miles west. He travels down timbered ravines and willow-bottomed creeks to the flats below and reaches the train tracks. The freeway
lies on the other side. Only a vehicle or two passes by every five minutes, but link fences make darting across the pavement impractical.

6 As a light snow begins to fall, the bear follows deer tracks south into a basalt-walled gorge where no fences run. The small canyon turns west and runs below a freeway bridge where the bear crosses under the freeway. He plows into the enveloping whiteness, on toward the hills beyond. Before long, he has entered a spruce forest. The drifting snow covers his tracks.

As stated in our introductory essay "Paths to Survival," seasonal migrations between habitats often determine whether or not a wild animal will survive. If habitats are isolated by cities and highways, or fragmented by fences, the long-term survival of large mammals – as well as the cascade of smaller creatures interconnected to them – is severely jeopardized.

Add to that the problem of global warming. If species are marooned in isolated islands of habitat too warm to tolerate, one-quarter of the earth’s plants and animals could disappear by the end of this century.

Freedom to Roam seeks to mitigate this situation by establishing corridors between existing protected areas so animals can migrate, connect with a larger gene pool, and survive.

"A Bear’s Journey" is adapted from The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears by Doug and Andrea Peacock (Lyons Press 2006).