by Phil Knight
Francs Peak, monarch of the Absaroka Range, tops thirteen thousand feet on the high divide between the Greybull and Wood Rivers. Walking the summit ridge with Kim Wilbert and Bryce Born this month, I could cast my vision across vast, remote mountain country, some of the wildest and least known terrain in the lower 48. “Bryce, check it out! It’s a grizzly!” I pointed down the steep west slope of Francs to a brown, moving blob in the talus. “Sure enough, and she’s got a cub!” Bryce exclaimed. Just then, Kim, a little bit behind us on the ridge, peered through his spotting scope and exclaimed “Guys, I’ve got seven grizzlies!!”
The bears were gathered on these steep slopes to gobble up fat army cutworm moths, one of their most important food sources. As we looked around we found grizzly scat right on the summit ridge. Gazing down at a huge boar on on a snowfield a quarter mile below us, we hoped he would stay down there.
We’d approached the peak from the Wood River and base camped in the gorgeous Meadow Creek Basin. Coyotes howled at us, mule deer bucks bedded down by the krummholz, a bull elk showed off his growing rack, and a nasty hail and thunder storm blasted us in the evening, giving Kim a serious pummeling as he was hanging our food. We woke at 4 AM to a full moon and more howling, and summited before 9 AM, seeking to beat the afternoon storms.
Difficult access keeps this place pretty quiet. Yet it’s not designated Wilderness, and the Shoshone National Forest has some hair brained scheme to increase off road vehicle us here. The terrain is not suited to such – it’s extremely steep and cliffy – and such a spectacular place surely deserves better than more over-priced toys spewing exhaust and tearing up trails.
It seemed early in the season for bears to be eating moths. But some of their other food sources are getting harder to find. Cutthroat trout are being devoured by invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Elk herds have diminished, partly due to predation by bears. Whitebark pines, source of nourishing pine nuts, are succumbing to the quadruple threat of blister rust, pine bark beetles, wildfire and extreme weather (avalanches and windstorms).
This is Bryce and Kims’ stomping ground, but I had not been in the South Absaroka since 1991. Since then, forests across the region have been devastated by insects and fire. In the upper Wood River, most of the spruce forests is toast – the ghost town of Kirwin is surrounded by the bleak, grey trunks of a once-thriving forest. This is some of the worst forest die off I’ve seen anywhere. It’s like a hot, evil wind has blasted the land, killing off the larger trees en masse.
Even here, far from the teaming human hordes, the impacts of industrial, petroleum-based civilization is imprinted on the land. Yet get above treeline, and it feels as wild as any place I have been. Wilderness hangs on despite our best efforts to tame everything. Bears find food and increase their numbers, even when some of their favorite foods are nearly gone. Nature is resilient, and the weeds and wilderness long will live.
As I was driving out though the gorgeous Wood River valley, a huge, dark bull moose appeared along the road, and as I stopped the car he ran right past me. His noble presence could not have offered a more dramatic contrast to the noisy, ugly oil pumpjacks lining the road. The moose jumped one fence, crossed the road behind me, jumped another, and, skirting the pumpjacks, made it to the sanctuary of the Wood River.
The harder we press it, the more nature will respond. The question is, how will it respond? With resilience, or with diminishment? And how far can we push the resilient side of nature, before it bites back?
Phil Knight is a thirty year resident of Greater Yellowstone and a member of the delivery team for the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Campaign.