Beargrass Grappa and Free-Range Bison in Montana's Glacier National Park

I eyed the goat on a trail heading directly towards me and hid in the trees so as not to startle it. I felt a bit sheepish, as I had actually taken this jog trail precisely because I’d seen the goat in the distance and, triangulating its path, realized that if I hustled I could get a close-up view of him. I just didn’t intend it to be that close. Fortunately, the goat trotted by the cluster of trees, perhaps three feet from where I stood in the brush, and sauntered up the trail.

I’d come to Montana’s Glacier National Park with colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to better understand the role of this magnificent wilderness in the larger landscape. This is the Crown of the Continent – so-called for its high peak topography (and also, I like to think, for jewels like Glacier and its Canadian sister park Waterton Lakes National Park). With me were WCS ecologists John Weaver, Joel Berger, and Keith Aune, who have devoted their lives to documenting the needs of wildlife like grizzly bears, mountain goats, and bison.

The goats are a cold-adapted, rock-climbing animal, often appearing at precipitous heights, ranging along the Rocky Mountains and other high mountain chains of the western US, Canada, and Alaska. Joel Berger works here studying the impact of climate change on the sure-footed mountain goat in high alpine national parks. Migratory species like mountain goats must be able to negotiate a wide range of altitudes from sea level to mountain tops to survive, and recent studies have concluded that Glacier National Park may well be glacier-free by 2030 because of climate change.

My conservation colleague John Weaver’s scientific studies have likewise helped inform decisions about the design of wilderness and other protected areas meant to safeguard wildlife throughout the Rocky Mountain West. One of his recent publications documented the cultural significance of wildlife to Blackfeet people in the Badger Two Medicine area of Lewis and Clark National Forest. And Keith Aune’s collaboration with the Blackfeet is a pioneering effort to restore free-ranging bison – North America’s largest land mammal and a culturally, ecologically, economically, and nutritionally significant species – to portions of its historic range, including the Blackfeet reservation.

Together with adjacent park and tribal territory over the Montana border in Canada, the Blackfeet reservation forms a mosaic of lands critical to the future of bison, and other wildlife in the Crown. WCS is facilitating dialogue between native groups (the Blackfeet and their Canadian brethren, the Blood tribe) on one hand and the US and Canadian parks services (who supervise Glacier and Waterton Lakes parks) on the other. Through these discussions we hope to plan for shared stewardship of free-ranging bison that will eventually range across park and tribal lands on both sides of the border.

This concept of shared stewardship is timely, given arguments over the value of and control over public lands in the US, especially protected lands like parks or monuments. But such collaborations require the support of local communities to succeed. Fortunately, much recent research documents the economic growth that accompanies the development of protected areas, which attract tourism and provide other economic benefits. One such example of economic opportunities is an ecotourism venture the Blackfeet are developing for tourists to participate in a bison drive, a once in a lifetime experience to ride horseback and sleep in traditional tipis out on the open range, sharing traditional foods and stories with members of the tribe.

Ironically, given political debates about the importance of protected areas, one of the biggest challenges park supervisors face is that the visiting public is loving parks to death. Influxes of visitors are stressing park infrastructure, degrading trail systems, and impacting the behavior of the very wildlife most people come to see.  Among the solutions park staff look to is developing amenities in less visited parts of their parks to draw people away from crowded nodes and spread the human impact out.

Such an approach also has the potential side benefit of bringing economic resources to multiple local communities rather than one or two primary gateway towns. So, the administrators of Glacier see development of bison tourism by the Blackfeet as beneficial since it will encourage tourists to spend time in the more sparsely visited eastern side of the park. Adding amenities like bison viewing in the tribal lands to the east will bring economic benefits from visitation, including revenue from lodging, gas purchases and dining.  All of this helps the tribe support the park and vice versa.

A week after concluding my conservation survey, I returned to area with my husband for some much-needed mountain time in Glacier National Park. The weather did not immediately cooperate, but after being pelted by a combination of freezing rain, sleet, hail and snow on a still-beautiful hike along the famed Highline trail, we made an après-mountain stop at Glacier Distillery. Many people know about the boom in craft brewing, which now controls 11 percent of market share for beer in the U.S. Craft distilling may be next. According to the Craft Distilling Association, there were 1,315 craft distillers in the country in 2015, and market share had grown from 0.8 percent in 2005 to 2.2 percent ten years later. Craft beverages benefit from the artisanal association we attach to high quality products made locally and not mass produced. Scale and distribution are limited, however, making on-site sales especially important. So a distillery like Glacier benefits tremendously from visitors like Harold and me stopping in before or after visiting Glacier National Park.

Tucked along the main road leading into Glacier from Kalispell, Montana, Glacier Distillery boasts the tag line: “Handcrafted Montana whiskey and fine spirits that bring you so close to Glacier you can taste it.” Their spirits feature local ingredients and glacial water from their northern Rockies backyard. Accessing that pure water is one of the many ecosystem services – or environmental benefits – that protected areas like Glacier National Park provide. The Distillery produces many different spirits. My husband sampled flights of the base spirits, like vodka and gin. I focused on the liqueurs, which seemed especially unique. One in particular, Little Cottonwood cherry liqueur, is made with cherries harvested from around nearby Flathead Lake. This spirit is a lovely eau de vie also flavored with orange, cardamom, and ginger. I like it neat or in a cocktail we created and affectionately named Big Sky.

Another I liked was Beargrass, a sweetened grappa. Beargrass is a collaboration with another local producer, Glacier County Honey Company, which touts their “healthy happy bees kept next to Glacier park.” According to the company, major flowers visited by the bees include sweet clover and alfalfa. Beargrass is delicious sipped on its own, perfumed and sweet with some finishing heat from the alcohol.

Perhaps I found it so appealing because we visited cold, wet, and tired after a long hike. Perhaps it was because the spirits we found there are carefully produced, high quality, and delicious. For me, much of the appeal was knowing that in tasting and buying several bottles to bring home, I was supporting a local business that itself supports Glacier National Park, providing an experience that gives tourists more reasons to spend time in this magnificent part of the country, and because the distillery produces spirits made with local ingredients – and water – that are reflective of and respectful of place.