Field Visit to the Big Hole Valley

By Ben Wickham

My first view of the Big Hole Valley is stunning: big blue skies, snowy peaks in the distance, a valley bottom beginning to green, and a historic beaver slide hay stacker in the foreground. Having grown up in Boise, it reminds me of the Sawtooth Valley—an Idahoan’s definition of picturesque.


I’m with People and Carnivores’ Field Project Manager Kim Johnston and she’s stopped here to give a lay of the land to me as P&C’s newest staff member. She motions across the Beaverhead Mountains at the far end of the valley and describes how grizzly bears have just started to roam the range again. At the foot of the mountains where the forests meet the meadows, Kim points out a series of ranches abutting public lands. To some, this may be a line of demarcation; the division between wildness and “ruralness,” between predators and people. However, as is often the case in this region, that line is blurred as wildlife moves around, unknowing of boundaries. In this space we have the opportunity to meet shared goals.


Kim drives us down into the valley and along dirt roads that branch towards the mountains. She shows me the work she’s doing to protect wild carnivores and community livelihoods, describing the many partnerships she’s cultivating to bring these seemingly polar opposites together so that both can thrive.


What Kim balances out here to make this work is staggeringly impressive. Being on the landscape I can see what’s at stake. If a grizzly bear is removed because of conflict, other grizzlies are less likely to wander in and set up shop. Their existence in this place could be set back years. For wolves, it’s a little different, because they already occupy more territory out here and across the region, but we still need them to connect between populations. Their living is about finding natural food sources when the elk herd migrates over the mountain range and into the lowlands of Salmon, Idaho for the winter. And for the ranchers and farmers, their bottom line is at stake. This is their way of life and the passage of all their hard work and everything they know to their next generation. From a distance, it’s easy to question this way of life, its impacts, or the viability of the operations. Out here on the ground, I feel an appreciation for it—for all the wildlife habitat provided by these large ranches, and respect for people wanting to do work connected to the land and the outdoors.  


Another thing I learned on our tour of the Big Hole is that we don’t need to protect all of the livestock 365 days a year. So how do we protect the most vulnerable livestock when they need it? We just cost-shared four Livestock Guardian Dogs for one ranch to protect their calves. Kim is helping coordinate a Range Rider program with a local valley group for the summer months when the cows get turned out into the woods above the valley. She has trail cameras set up and was able to confirm a male grizzly in a still snowy landscape that wandered straight downhill from its winter den as many of us would stagger to our morning coffee. Kim is discussing ways with nearby landowners to keep the bear migrating instead of going to easy but unnatural meals like a carcass pile, grain, or unsecured trash.


People in the Big Hole and in rural communities around southwest Montana are talking about coexistence more now, and with each other about solving problems even if they don’t agree on everything. This may be the most essential work happening. It happens over the sharing of coffee at someone’s kitchen table, or from mud-drenched trucks parked side by side on a dirt road. They’re talking about the wolf tracks they’ve seen, when the cows will calve, and exactly how many grizzly there might be in the mountains beyond. There is fear but also excitement and fascination. To me this is most impressive in light of the state of our society these days. I see common ground here, and it gives me hope for what is going to take place in this picturesque Big Hole Valley.