Charles Jonkel, Video
There were bears all over the plains, way out in the plains, but they were pretty much along the rivers. People think they were spread evenly along the plains, and that's the way the maps show it. That they were spread out all over the plains. But they were along the rivers and the draws and the creek bottoms, and such. And they were primarily there for the berries—the prairie buffalo berry, the chokecherries, the kinnikinnick, all those sorts of things. A lot of times there was better production out there. Or maybe in a bad year in the mountains, they were better out there, and it was an alternative for them. There were also the buffalo migrations, and the buffalo jumps, and such, and they took advantage of that as well. But I think they were primarily out there for the vegetation.
We get the idea from Lewis and Clark and other early accounts that there were just tons of grizzlies out on the great plains. But I don't think there were. I think there were tons of them along the streams. Of course, in those days they didn't have I-90 and I-94, and such. You travelled on the rivers. So you were literally travelling all day, and every day, right through the pantry for the bears, and of course they had a lot of encounters. Had they been on the high ground, out in the middle of the prairie, I don't think they would have had nearly this trouble. But it was impossible. They had to stick to the water to keep track of where they were, but also for all the resources along the streams.
Another thing that bothers me about those accounts, and the status of the bears now: You'll read in books that the grizzly bears were driven from the great plains, or they were driven from the big valleys into the mountains for their sanctuary. Well, that isn't what happened. What happened was that the ones who lived out there were killed, and the ones that were in the mountains survived.
Right up to the worst of times for the grizzly bears, Montana kept a pretty good grizzly bear population. And it wasn't that we loved grizzly bears more than people in other states. It's just that our mountains are so wide—you know they're 200 miles wide, the Rockies are, in this area—and they're very rugged. And we tried to kill them all, and we couldn't; we just didn't get to it. We were well on the way in the 1950s, with the new poisons and such, to killing them all. But it was about that time that people started questioning whether that was really right that we kill them all. In effect, we ended up with grizzly bears when hardly anybody else had them, because we just weren't capable of killing them all, which was lucky for the grizzly bears.
I think, lucky for us too, when you look back on it all.