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In Defense of The Voiceless, Part 2 – Bears

by Joyce Johnson

Spring has our bears coming out of hibernation, and according to a recent front page piece here in the Journal, it’s also drawing out “snakes in the tall, new grass,” Bears and snakes and tourists, oh my! But knowledge, watchfulness and a bit of avoidance is easy and deals well with all life’s challenges. The “if it scares or inconveniences you, kill it,” thing is old, macho, and stupid.

Our world of animal life is being decimated by mindless destroying, pollution, trophy and quota hunting, trapping, testing, or animals dispatched from life at random, cruelly, just about everywhere for any reason. Our living planet and her feeling life, which includes the higher form, us, is about freedom and inter-cooperation, and naturally invokes the R-word: Respect (for life). We have long exploited it all for greed, power or wall decor. But thus far, not much further.

Photo by Jim Harrison

Here’s my short snake and bear stories: Within the 30 plus years I have lived here in rural Montana, I have only seen one (dead) rattler; one or two little garden snakes, two scared bear cubs up trees and one mamma bear with her two cubs on the river beach from an office window. The bears swam over to the buildings and created a sitcom until the boss strolled outside and banged some pans together. They went back across the river to their island home. But okay,

I confess that when I see fresh bear scat or claw sharpening scratches on trees,

I pause and pivot around with big eyes, and usually go the other way or start singing or both. I forget to pack pepper spray, I’d likely spray myself to be honest. But most bear stories are anti-climatic.

Bears are mostly nocturnal, which I call very smart they know our wacky, dangerous ways. A bear broke into a neighbor’s greenhouse one night here in the hills and feasted on all the stored fruit. A bear was seen dragging the body of a sheep away near us, which I include here, though hurts my heart. I long, long ago read about a bear breaking into a small, isolated mobile home in Emigrant. I wonder if the owner banged pans together.

Our right to carry arms is in place in Montana, and rightly so, but there are ways to leave wildlife alone. Certain dogs are well known to defend sheep from or chase predators away. Special fencing accessories repel them from livestock, and this is known and yet the unnecessary killing prevails.

Bear horn & wrist bell. A native friend of mine said you could run into bears anytime, so they sent me a horn and bells. The horn is small and hooks to a belt, and is hilarious and effective. “Bears hate the sound,” my friend said. Testing it, I blew the horn from my front porch one day to hear what it sounded like. A neighbor and her little dog were walking serenely a football field away, they both jumped off the ground in surprise and flapped like chickens! Jaw-dropping it was. She looked my way, but I had stepped quickly inside, closed the door and um...chuckled. Oddly, it wasn’t that loud to me, but low in pitch, like the antiquated “uh-ooga” horn, but ya want the truth? It sounded more like Godzilla passing gas. Yes, that big! And scary sorta. Anyway the sound obviously travels far.

The hiker’s wrist bell is for the same reason, to make noise but just less dramatic. Animals hear and smell way better than we do. I read that they would just as soon get the heck out our way. The she-bear is just another mother, and when we come up on her unawares, especially with cubs nearby, you know the rest. I sing when I walk in remote areas, like the birds do, when all is well. Or to let animals know I’m around.

Jaw-dropping Montana. Ron has come face to face, unannounced, with big black bears. Once at his former rural mailbox, and the other one night here in Emigrant hills, outside our front door. I wish he had awakened me. Ron is mysteriously low-key and fearless, and regarding both encounters all he said was, “We looked at each other, shrugged and the bear wandered off.” I believed him. He would not kill a bug, and animals and bugs know it and like him. A huge mountain lion ran in front of his car on the Bozeman pass—thank goodness he was driving slow in a blizzard. An eagle flew across his windscreen too, and a near miss and just as sensational. Another local driving over the Pass claimed to have seen Sasquatch.

It’s normal to see big winter herds of elk, deer and antelope visit the plateau up in the hills near me. While out walking a year ago, I greeted and waved playfully at a large herd of elk laying around on the Story Ranch property. I was stunned beyond belief when the entire herd got up and ran off, they were about a half a football field away. We also see an occasional fox, rabbits, hawks, wild geese, ducks, swans, ospreys, sandhill cranes and eagles here in the heart of the valley, as well as dozens of magpies and visiting seasonal birds, here at the feet of our most-photo’d and loved mountain in all of Montana—Emigrant Peak. And to live alongside the powerful, playful, north-flowing Yellowstone River replaces my longing for the sea. Most if not all of us hold deep, conscious gratitude for our gorgeous valley home, and the Absaroka Mountains; sentinels of power and beauty, that seem to rise above and protect us and provide a home for locals, animals that is first. The valley tends to blow away the less hearty.

We can “blow” away, discourage, or fence-out bears and other predators from our property without slaughter. It’s requires a willingness to try new ways or make it law to respect our living prehistoric, top-of-the-food chain, true locals, super survivalists, bears, and wolves and bison, but the list is endless. In response to trapping, rather than seek to kill, skin and sell fur, etc., to other countries, I wrote the following in a letter to the Enterprise Editor 20 years ago and asked: “trappers please get a real job?” And I am more intent now, as the situation is worse, and we still plead for humane thinking, fair regulation and protection. It really is imperative, not an option. We can get informed and listen to, and support the people and organizations that quietly speak for us, and for the Voiceless, with humane conscience, to educate, propose alternative ways, and laws to Protect Life, period.

Thank you for reading my column. Your input is always welcome at PCCjournal, and to me, at


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