Into the Wild

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 13, 2009

I read the wrong book before my Yellowstone trip. "Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park," by historian Lee Whittlesey, tells the stories of 250 people killed in Yellowstone by bison, avalanches, geysers, forest fires and, most menacing of all, Ursus arctos horribilis -- the North American grizzly bear.

There's the disturbing case, for example, of the Swiss backpacker who disappeared while camping in the backcountry in 1984. When park rangers searched for her, they found only half of her body. A grizzly had slashed through her tent, dragged her out and apparently eaten the other half.

Despite the obvious implications of "Death in Yellowstone," there I was in July, in a Yellowstone National Park ranger station in Wyoming with my friend Jason Williams, the 33-year-old owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, requesting a wilderness permit to do exactly what that Swiss hiker had done: camp deep in Yellowstone's grizzly country.

We indicated on a map where we planned to go, and the park ranger frowned deeply. "Why'd you want to go back there?" he asked. At this, Jason winced. His tall, chiseled body -- already taut with only about 0.01 percent body fat -- contracted in disbelief. Through a hard squint, he sized up the ranger, who didn't appear particularly rangeresque with his rubber-tire waist and pale face. The ranger broke the stare-down, looking away and shifting his feet. "But there's grizzlies back there," he said.

Jason smiled broadly. "My point exactly. And that wilderness pass?"

Not quite yet. First, the mandatory 15-minute video on Yellowstone safety. I watched, rapt, but poor Jason had been force-fed the video a hundred times. "Why'd you want to go back there?" he muttered sarcastically several times while it played. To complete what Jason dubbed his "castration," the ranger's assistant insisted that he answer two dozen questions about things as simple as boiling stream water to avoid a tummy ache.

After an hour of red tape, we got the wilderness pass and drove Jason's pickup into the vast Lamar Valley, dubbed the Serengeti of North America. Indeed. Herds of bison and elk grazed out to the horizon, interspersed with pronghorn antelope, the world's second-fastest mammal after the cheetah.

I'd come to Yellowstone for just the sense of awe I was beginning to feel, what Thoreau called "the tonic of wilderness." That tonic was already starting to cure my New York City-induced nature deficit disorder, blotting from my consciousness screeching F trains, drop-dead deadlines and fickle WiFi connections. But Jason wasn't impressed. "Too much prey around here," he said. "Let's find some predators."

We left the bright valley and drove into Lamar's darker side, a splinter canyon of thick forest. Through the pickup window, I tried to spot the sparkling eyes or brown coat of a grizzly. Not surprisingly, I didn't see either. Though they historically ranged from California to West Virginia and down to Mexico, today only about 1,000 grizzlies live in the lower 48 in five small populations, including one in Yellowstone. (An estimated 30,000 survive in Alaska.)

And they continue to be threatened. Around Montana's Glacier National Park and Alberta's Banff National Park, grizzly bears are sometimes hit by cars on the roads or by trains as they scavenge for grain that has fallen from boxcars. Other times, attracted by bird or pet food, they come into contact with humans and are killed. They're sometimes shot by hunters who mistake them for legal-to-hunt black bears. But the larger reason for their minuscule numbers is the road building, logging and energy and mineral exploration needed for a planet of more than 6 billion humans with a growing appetite.

Despite grizzly bears' small numbers, the U.S. government said the animals are now "thriving in the Yellowstone ecosystem" and removed bears in the park area from Endangered Species Act protection in 2007, setting off a firestorm of protest. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups have filed suit to relist the Yellowstone grizzly.

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