Up Tom Miner Basin, neighbors are grappling to prevent a wildlife miracle from being loved to death
BY TODD WILKINSON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE JOHNS
It’s a few hours before dusk. The sun holds like a ball balanced on the sharp crest of the Gallatin Range and then starts to sink behind the mountains.
Tonight, there’s a rumble of thunder while a breeze rustles the leaves of quaking aspen. For a while now, a steady flow of vehicles has been rumbling up a dead-end dirt road from the floor of Paradise Valley far below. Reaching a meadow, drivers back into a makeshift parking area so that windshields face west. The atmosphere, for those old enough to remember, is akin to the days of yore when cars arrived en masse to outdoor drive-in movie theaters and waited for the show to begin.
Some spectators open their doors and climb onto elevated flatbeds of pickup trucks, carrying tripods, spotting scopes and cracking open cans of beer. Others hold cameras with long lenses. The rest stay inside their vehicles, sitting in anticipation for the unchoreographed drama to unfold. After one person shouts to a friend, he is met with glares and a few holding index fingers to their mouths with a collective “Shush.”
Eventually, with no fanfare, a grizzly bear nonchalantly emerges from the timber several hundred yards away on the other side of a ranch fence and enters a pasture. Then a second appears, this one a mother with cubs at her side. Then another—and another. The bruins stride beside a group of grazing cattle but neither species gives the other any heed. This isn’t a drive-in theater featuring a Walt Disney movie; it’s a picture of delicate, hard-earned coexistence, between humans and nature, predators and prey. And its future hangs in the balance.
Uninterested in eating meat, the wild bears converge to dine on the roots of a perennial plant, caraway, that carpets the pastures of the B-Bar Guest Ranch in Tom Miner Basin. While caraway is an exotic species that found its way here years ago and spread the same way dandelions do, even more enigmatic is the scene of bear watchers. What began as a low-key event involving mostly locals observing grizzlies filling their bellies on caraway before hibernation, has turned into a scene.
On the one hand, the opportunity to spy grizzlies at Tom Miner is a miracle; an extension of one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories in history: the biological recovery of once imperiled grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The core of the GYE holds an estimated 750 grizzlies and perhaps 40 of them live in or around Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park. It’s a testament to remarkable efforts made by local ranchers in Tom Miner to prove that livestock and these formidable omnivores can share an intersection of public and private land.
What once was a bear-watching opportunity only known via word of mouth has been transformed by technology. The proliferation of cell phones and viral sharing of information on social media, tourism officials touting bear watching as an attraction, and guides taking clients to this out-of-the-way place means the secret is no more.
As a result, Tom Miner residents, whose land stewardship practices have created a welcoming environment for grizzlies, now find themselves thrust into an unwanted New West dilemma. It hinges on a blunt question that has implications for many corners of the Rockies: are we humans in the 21st century capable of safeguarding exceedingly rare and priceless natural wonders or is our species fated to love them to death?
Tom Miner Road historically saw at most 1,000 car trips annually; in recent years, that has swelled to 9,000, most of it concentrated in the eight-week span when bears are visually present.
Malou Anderson-Ramirez was raised in Tom Miner. As cofounder of the Tom Miner Basin Association, she has devoted countless hours trying to untangle this Gordian knot. She’s the face of a new generation of Western ranchers. Joining her and other longtime residents is Maryanne Mott, owner of the B-Bar Ranch, which has vaunted status in the lore of conservation.
For years, Mott’s guest ranch has been a spot where members of the Greater Yellowstone conservation community have come on retreats. It’s fair to say that, as a venue, and with Mott’s encouragement, the B-Bar has helped incubate ideas now at the forefront of advancing transboundary thinking as it applies to protecting the richest bioregion for large mammals left in the Lower 48.
Part of the present conundrum with bear watching is owed to geography. The other to human nature. Tom Miner Road dead ends at a Forest Service trailhead leading into the Gallatin Range. The B-Bar, where grizzlies munch on caraway, is located near the end of the road. As Anderson-Ramirez notes, to give perspective, Tom Miner Road historically saw at most 1,000 car trips annually; in recent years, that has swelled to 9,000, most of it concentrated in the eight-week span when bears are visually present. Just down U.S. Highway 89, Yellowstone National Park has been shattering visitation records, with nearly 5 million visits notched in 2021. Compared to the wildlife traffic jams related to bears, wolves, bison and elk in the park, Tom Miner pales. But this solaceful and remote area is not made to handle industrial tourism.
Despite the enthusiasm of bear watchers, numerous problems have ensued, not owed to aggressive behavior on the part of grizzlies, but of people. Some visitors have climbed over fences and trespassed onto the B-Bar in order to move closer to the animals, heightening the risk of a negative encounter. Others have treated it like a college football tailgate party, letting their barking dogs run off leash, even firing up barbecues to grill hamburgers and steaks. (The aroma of cooking meat and any juices that splatter on the ground can cause bears to become habituated to eating human food.)
Barbecues and hot mufflers from vehicles also heighten the risk of wildfires starting in tinder-dry grass. Motorists often drive too fast. Rising traffic levels pound a county road engineered to handle only a fraction of the volume. Stan Lumsden, owner of nearby Sawtooth Mountain Ranch, brought in truckloads of gravel to create a parking area to prevent fire danger. And, while a chemical treatment has been applied to the road to abate dust levels kicked up by cars and coating the homes of local residents, it has also leached into the ground and killed trees along the road. Anderson-Ramirez says trying to do right by nature shouldn’t result in its fiercest advocates having to batten down the hatches.
All of the above breach tenets of responsible bear watching, including respecting bears’ space as well as private property. “There has been a sense of violation,” Anderson-Ramirez says. “It’s not something we would have invited.” Because Tom Miner isn’t in Yellowstone, no park rangers are on duty to enforce formal regulations, nor staff from the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, nor a regular presence of deputies from the county sheriff. Unmanaged, the scene at times has been a free for all.
On top of it, owners of wildlife safari companies that normally operate in Yellowstone have been taking paying clients to Tom Miner in increasing numbers, earning profits from bear watching but contributing nothing to the neighborhood which has been stuck with the headaches. Even rangers at the information desk in Yellowstone have referred tourists to Tom Miner. No one knows exactly what the human carrying capacity is—where numbers of people disrupt the neighborhood peace and sanctity of the bears and other wildlife—but many up Tom Miner believe it has already been surpassed.
Were it possible to limit public access up Tom Miner Road like, say, a private residential subdivision can, a solution that benefits bears, the neighborhood and the quality of the experience for wildlife watchers could certainly be achieved. But as a county road, which also accesses federal public land and a Forest Service campground, it is a public road. Public roads cannot be restricted or closed to public use without a compelling legal reason, although common sense might indicate that if justification were needed, this would be it.
Public roads cannot be restricted or closed to public use without a compelling legal reason, although common sense might indicate that if justification were needed, this would be it.
Park County Commissioner Bill Berg, who lives on the outskirts of nearby Gardiner and who first came to the region to work as a concession employee in Yellowstone 50 years ago, is sympathetic. He and county road and fire experts as well as officials with the U.S. Forest Service, state and federal wildlife have visited the site. Berg has watched bears there himself. The commission is well aware of the complaints and fears of Tom Miner residents and conservation-minded citizens, but, for now, since it is a public county road, elected officials and county planners have few options—other than educating the public.
Neither the B-Bar nor the Anderson Ranch has ever courted public attention, yet their devotion to protecting the wild character of Tom Miner has earned widespread praise. In addition to the basin being repopulated by a growing population of grizzlies, wolf packs and mountain lions have taken up residence too.
Ranchers use electric fences to protect young cows and horses, voluntarily adopted tough trash storage techniques, and the B-Bar imparts a message to its guests that they are entering into the homeland of wildlife and need to comport themselves with respect. Carrying bear spray goes with the terrain. Most of all, they encourage employees and visitors to turn up their level of awareness.
Maryanne Mott came to Tom Miner in February 1978 and caught two glimpses of it—by snowmobile and airplane. She bought the B-Bar not long after. The ranch sells certified organic beef and does everything it can to prevent conflicts. If an aggressive bear does threaten the herd, Mott has asked her ranch hands to first try moving the herd to another pasture before calling in people to move the bear. They’ve also switched from running calves to 2-year-olds and it’s resulted in fewer losses. “When I came to the basin, those animals had lived there a long time before many of the humans,” Mott says. “Knowing how their habitat has been dramatically reduced over time, it seems the least we can do is respect their rights and by modifying our ways to fit their needs, we’ve maintained a better balance.”
As Anderson-Ramirez says, no rancher wants to lose livestock but neither is there an Old West intolerance for predators. “We know it is privilege to live in a place like this and we want to be good neighbors not only to our human neighbors in the community but to the wildlife that call Tom Miner home,” she explains.
The Andersons have lost beloved pet dogs to wolves and over several years they and neighbors have had dozens of cows killed by predators. While the toll hasn’t been ruinous when extrapolated across decades, if several animals die in a given year it can be very costly. The Andersons and other human residents, who wave to each other in passing on the dirt road, live in one of the wildest neighborhoods in America. They’ve never been attacked by a griz, however range riders and hunters on the nearby national forest have.
Dealing with rare predation on livestock has sometimes required lethal removal to prevent adult bears and wolves from teaching that behavior to offspring. Hannibal and Julie Anderson, Malou’s parents, say that over time a kind of rhythm has been established among the human and nonhuman denizens. Typically, if a predation incident happens, it involves male bruins. “I can’t really explain it other than to say we feel it, we sense it. If a bear starts preying on cattle and it requires the bear being removed, there’s a disruption and it takes a while for things to settle down again,” Hannibal says.
Tom Miner is an example of what re-wilding can look like if humans are smart and willing to afford animals space, engage in trial and error, listen and learn.
More than anything, Tom Miner is an example of what re-wilding can look like if humans are smart and willing to afford animals space, engage in trial and error, listen and learn.
Hannibal says his mother and father bought land up Tom Miner in the mid-1950s to escape and help him heal after the Second World War. But he recognized, and it’s a way of thinking passed down across three more generations, that while the family name is on the deed, they are mere fortunate guardians of a place that emanates a spirit far greater than themselves. This isn’t some New Age idyll: it is evident in how they talk about it and the quiet, reverential way they interact with landscape.
Their son Andrew Anderson and his wife Hilary, here and on another ranch in the Centennial Valley, have developed better ways of raising livestock in places where bears, wolves and lions are also present. That includes using nonlethal deterrents such as guard dogs, fladry, electric fences and a “range rider” program Hilary started by which people on horseback move with cattle through the forests and grasslands to prevent conflicts with bears and wolves. Still another aspect is low-stress livestock handling wherein cattle mimicking the grazing habits of bison and elk results in better grassland health.
Another son, Daniel, has launched a nonprofit called The Common Ground Project that allows outsiders to spend time at the ranch and become immersed in nature to better understand how their relationship with the non-human-dominated world can be a reciprocal one. Daniel also is involved in wildlife transportation issues in the Upper Yellowstone River Basin and helps lead the push to establish a wildlife crossing along busy U.S. Highway 89 to facilitate safer passage and reduce animal roadkill to keep people and animals alive. His partner, Louise Johns, a world-class photographer who has had her pictures published in National Geographic (and provided images for this story), has been chronicling it all.
Last but not least is their daughter Malou who, in addition to being a leader in the Tom Miner Basin Association, a certified practitioner of equine therapy, and a maven in discussions about sustainability and regenerative agriculture, is a proud mother of two daughters and partner to her husband Andres. Not long ago, Malou founded Teal Enterprises to advise ranchers on how conservation techniques can benefit their bottom line. The site features a quote from forerunning American ecologist Aldo Leopold: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Jackson is what happens when we build in a valley that was a migration corridor bottleneck in the past.
While identifying as a “keeper of the New West” and shifting away from attitudes that presented ranching as being in a constant battle with Mother Nature, Anderson-Ramirez sometimes feels that dealing with grizzlies is far easier than dealing with waves of defiant humans. The invasion of bear watchers has brought an “unsettling” feeling to Tom Miner, an interruption to its placid tranquility, she says.
The inability to impose limits on human numbers means that in a state like Montana where freedom, liberty and individuals taking personal responsibility for their actions are touted as virtues, now more than ever people need to practice them. Navigating this ground and trying to uphold a spirit of neighborliness that has defined the way Tom Miner residents get along can be tricky. Greeting people who ascend the road now is a simple sign that reads: “Tom Miner Basin: A Wild & Working Landscape—Bears and wildlife live here. People and livestock do too.”
On some evenings, B-Bar manager Trina Smith will walk up the road and converse one-on-one with bear watchers who hail from the U.S. and other countries. Most are grateful and many say they had no idea that to have a healthy population of bears involves trying to make 100 right decisions. Sometimes, Mott says, that upon reaching the parking area and seeing 70 cars night after night, the special feeling of intimacy gone; it can be disheartening.
The Tom Miner Basin Association has attracted financial assistance from a number of conservation organizations, but the costs of de-facto management of bear watching continue to add up. One way bear watchers can support conservation efforts up Tom Miner is by buying grass-fed beef raised in the basin, as profits are poured back into land stewardship. Anderson-Ramirez is pleased that thousands of people have had an experience they’ll never forget watching grizzlies in her backyard, but they need to know it’s the result of local goodwill. “They get the thrill of their lives and then they leave,” she said. “We’re here day after day working to make it possible. If we want it to last, let’s not screw it up.”
A Bear Watching Code of Conduct for Tom Miner
- Before you go, prepare yourself and communicate with your group what will be expected.
- When you head up Tom Miner, you are a guest entering a wild neighborhood inhabited by wildlife and people. Be gracious and respectful. Do not cross fences or trespass on private property.
- Drive slow (no more than 15 mph).
- Don’t bring your dog, keep food in your car, and use the restroom before you go.
- When you arrive, turn off your car engine and stereo, keep your voice down, don’t slam your car door, turn off the ringtone on your phone, stay along the road, and be courteous to others.
- Do not start a fire, cook food, or smoke cigarettes. Do not park your car in high grass.
- Never approach a bear. If a bear approaches the road, get in your car and roll up the windows.
- Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
- Don’t leave trash behind.
- If someone is causing a dangerous situation for people or bears, call the Park County Sheriff Dispatch: (406) 222-2050.
- As a way of giving back for the experience you’ve just had, send a contribution to the Tom Miner Basin Association by going to tomminerbasinassociation.org.
CALL TO ACTION
When you’re hiking in bear country, what do you yell to make yourself heard? “Hey Bear!” A sister company to Outlaw Partners, publisher of Mountain Outlaw magazine, Hey Bear aims to educate and raise awareness for safe and responsible coexistence in bear country. Visit heybear.com to get involved and learn how Hey Bear is taking action to protect bears and their natural habitat. Through the sale of Hey Bear merchandise, such as hats, T-shirts, jackets and bear-spray belts, Hey Bear is giving back by donating 1 percent of proceeds to bear education and stewardship initiatives.