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Bryce Andrews: Down from the Mountain

If you’re like most homo sapiens today, you’ve probably given at least some thought to global warming and climate change. But have you ever considered the concept from a bear’s point of view?

Montana farmer and animal activist Bryce Andrews has, and he shares his timely if troublesome insights in his wonderfully-tailored second autobiographical book, “Down from the Mountain: The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear.”

If your reading tilts toward ranching, you probably already know all about Andrews from his 2013 debut, “Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West,” which harvested him the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers”Award, a “Reading the West” Book Award for nonfiction, and a finalist nod for the Washington State Book Award.

All this was richly deserved, so who better to offer a fresh perspective on mountain life than the highly literate son of the director of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle who fled Puget Sound for a summer job on the Sun Ranch just outside Yellowstone Park, and over the next decade literally found himself, both as a writer and a rancher, with a fascination for wolves and grizzlies?

“My life is split halfway between writing and half between the more physical work, whether it’s with large carnivores or agriculture,” Andrews explains. “And for so many of the people who do that second part of the equation that makes up my life, there is a real tendency to become callous, to become jaded about animal life or deny yourself that connection to individual animals and think, ‘OK, I have to be tough and protect myself from these feelings.’

“And I don’t think that serves us very well. Writing is one of the ways that I try to preserve that kind of attachment to individual creatures, because when you write about something like a grizzly sow and cubs, you really do force yourself to think about them in a way that farmers and biologists don’t. To indulge yourself in that way I think is very valuable. At least it is for me.”

The grizzlies in question in “Down from the Mountain” are sow Millie, a strong mother fiercely protective of her two cubs as she tries to raise them in a climate and rural setting that is fast-changing, mostly for the worse from the grizzly-mother perspective. Perhaps the largest mixed blessing for her woolly species is the growth of rural suburbs and hobby farms, that, while introducing new food options (think corn), also bring with them new dangers from poachers and newbie ranchers.

During his years of midnight rides and close encounters with grizzlies, Bryce Andrews recognized in himself a growing empathy toward the four-pawed creatures whose battle to survive changing times was not terribly different from his own.

“The experience of encountering a bear is fundamentally life-changing for me, because it’s an animal that you encounter as an equal in a way that’s really rare in the world,” he says. “Almost every animal runs from us immediately, but a bear doesn’t. A bear just decides what it’s going to do; it decides that based on who you are and how you present yourself to it, and it decides that also based on its own individual understanding of risk, its mood, and the kind of day it’s having.

“It’s an encounter that is markedly different than most encounters we have with wildlife because anything can happen, and because of that, it makes a lot of our deepest human impulses visible. It shows us there are things we want to run from. It gives us feelings of profound gratitude. This landscape for me would not be the same without grizzlies on it, and I would want to live here less if they weren’t here.”

Around Yellowstone, Andrews slowly discovered a community of animal empaths among the native tribes, and eventually put his inner feelings to use working with a conservation group, People and Carnivores.

“Certainly, there is a cultural emphasis that’s being put on connections to wild animals that I think is missing in our culture. I think there are some fundamental things that a lot of us in the contemporary West can learn from native cultures and native tribes. I think we have a lot to learn there,” he says.

“For instance, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe took actions to protect big chunks of wilderness for grizzly bear habitat at a time when that was kind of unheard of. There are a lot of things that we can learn from the tribes, and a lot of ways that we should be paying better attention to them and the choices that they’re making. And I think there are a lot of things they’re doing that we could expand to the larger West to great effect.”

So why aren’t we doing just that?

“That’s a really complicated question, and one that goes to the heart of a lot of things that are wrong right now in our landscapes out here. We’re probably not doing it because we’re not listening very well across cultural lines, because the ascendant culture in the American West right now is still one of resource extraction rather than sustainable inhabitation. And because native people have been disenfranchised over the last 100 years to the point where we don’t hear them the way we should, which is as sovereign nations that sustain the land,” he says.

“I do have a really strong conviction that we need to be listening more and paying more attention to the choices that the tribes are making, because a reservation like this one is a microcosm for the West; it has all the moving features of larger landscapes and what works here could work off the reservation, too. I’m thinking specifically of things like setting aside land for grizzly bear habitat, where people don’t go certain times of the year, or taking approaches to land use and zoning that preserve open space.”

The growing influx of hobby farms is making ever more clear the need to help all species adapt to the seemingly sudden return of carnivores to lands they once dominated.

“The only thing I’m sure about is this: we’re at this fundamentally crucial moment right now in the history of the West because, for a long time, settlers perceived this landscape as infinite, and each little town was an island in a wild ocean.

“The moment that we’re passing through right now is where that relationship gets inverted; the truly wild places have now become islands of wilderness in what is a sea of domesticated or settled landscape. That is a really, really profound thing to reckon with in the West right now, so I think there is a truly important task ahead of us, which is figuring out, as more people move into this landscape and we continue to shape it in ways that make it easier for humans to live here, how are we going to restrain ourselves? How are we going to feed ourselves from this landscape? How are we going to enjoy it while preserving the parts that make it essentially the way it is?

“That’s where hobby farmers and rural subdivisions have taken us. How we do with moderating and shaping and limiting rural subdivision is going to define what the world looks like for grizzly bears, for a bunch of other species as well. And it’s going to change our quality of life in the next 50 years, so we have to be really careful about what we do there.”

As for the writing half of his life, Andrews chuckles when asked if he has ever contemplated fiction, a background tone that crops up from time to time throughout “Down from the Mountain.”

“You know, I did write a novel but no one wanted to publish it. And I agree with that, I needed to do more work on it. It actually started as a collection of short stories that became a novel about the Deer Lodge Valley. I worked there running a ranch for a number of years, and it was about three families trying to negotiate a multi-year drought and trying to survive it in a landscape where there was a lot of intense use and even a good deal of abuse, because of the leftovers from the copper mining at Butte and Anaconda that are just upstream of the agricultural parts of the Deer Lodge Valley.

“I wrote a draft of it and I thought I wanted to publish it then, but when I look at it now, I think, what a total act of hubris to think that on my first try, I could write a novel! I spent so much time learning to write nonfiction well that I just need to spend some more time before I let anything fiction out into the world.”

His next work? That will be nonfiction.

However, job one when we spoke was not climate change, species adaptation or first novels, but Bryce’s wedding to fiancé Gillian in a mere two weeks’ time.

“We live on a farm outside of Arlee, Montana. It’s a beautiful place. We live right up against the base of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, and look across the valley and see the south edge of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, because we’re on the Flathead Indian reservation,” he says.

“We’ve been doing a lot of wedding preparations because we’re having it out here on our farm, which is a really beautiful place but there’s not one flat part of it, so there’s a lot of figuring out where we’re going to do these things. Will our older family members be OK crossing the rickety little bridge, or do I have to rebuild the bridge? The answer to that is, I have to rebuild the bridge.”

—Jay MacDonald

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