Dangerous Ground

Do Killer Grizzlies Deserve Death?

Federal officials defied their own rules in deciding to kill the mother bear behind this month’s Yellowstone tragedy. The lives of the endangered species are about to get even cheaper.

08.22.15 4:01 AM ET

On Aug. 6, a 63-year-old man, a seasonal employee at a medical clinic in Yellowstone National Park, was taking a familiar walk in the pinewoods near Lake Village. An experienced hiker, the man enjoyed walking under the open conifer forest, through low huckleberry brush, past green moss often decorated with colorful red and golden mushrooms popping up from the summer rains.

For whatever reason of inattention, the man blundered into a family of grizzly bears—possibly only a few dozen feet away. The mother grizzly, with her two six-month-old cubs behind her, stared at the intruder who was far too close to her cubs.

In this crucial moment, the man turned and ran. The mother grizzly—who could outrun a racehorse over a short distance—caught up with him in seconds. She was on top of him immediately, biting, and he was parrying with his arms, trying to punch her on the nose. The one-sided fight was over in minutes. The hiker, Lance Crosby of Billings, Montana, lay dead.

The mother grizzly remained for another moment, her paw on the man’s shoulder to insure the intruder was no longer a threat to her cubs. Then she spun and returned to gather up her cubs. They disappeared into the trees. But they would see the dead man again.

At least that’s what we think happened. No other human was on the scene to witness. Much of the evidence is circumstantial and inconclusive.

On Aug. 7, the hiker was reported missing when he didn’t report for work. Around noon, a park ranger found his body in an area he was known to frequent, about a half mile from a popular trail. Additional rangers and wildlife biologists responded to the scene and gathered evidence, including DNA material.

The investigation was slated to continue, but it rained like hell Friday evening and Saturday, obscuring tracks and other data. The authorities also scheduled a forensic autopsy for the following Monday. Wildlife biologists placed bear traps in the area. “If bears are trapped and identified as having been involved in the attack,” the park service said, “they will be euthanized.”

In the same press release, Park Superintendent Dan Wenk stated: “We may not be able to conclusively determine the circumstances of this bear attack, but we will not risk public safety.” Apparently, the superintendent had already made up his mind.

More details trickled in, though it was pretty clear what had gone down. Another press release reported: “…investigators have identified what appear to be defensive wounds on the victim’s forearms. The victim’s body was found partially consumed and cached, or covered… Based on partial tracks found at the scene, it appears that an adult female grizzly and at least one cub-of-the-year were present and likely involved in the incident.”

Here is a national park manager’s worst nightmare: A grizzly bear eating human flesh, a man-eater. Following a purely defensive, natural response to a human intrusion where the man ran from the charging grizzly, then fought back, a bear—it’s not provable if it was the mother or another grizzly—started treating the dead body as food source, fed on it, and then covered it up with dirt and sticks.

This caching behavior by bears and other carnivores means the bear is thinking of coming back for future meal. Caching anything dead (mostly elk and bison, but also humans who, once dead, are just another protein source to a bear) is a natural, expected reaction from a wild grizzly. But that’s also the hardest part for many modern humans, and park managers, to stomach.

What do wildlife biologists and other grizzly bear experts say about what is “natural behavior” in grizzlies when humans are killed and sometimes eaten? What constitutes normal bear activity is important, because bears are not supposed to be killed when their behavior is deemed natural. The “best available science” here is a bit soft since it’s impossible to get inside a bear’s brain and the investigative methods of past grizzly mauling incidents were often cursory and lacking current tools, such as DNA analysis.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Most injuries to humans by grizzly bears are by mothers defending their cubs. Government officials put the percentage around 70 to 75 percent; I think 80 percent is closer to reality because early investigations of human maulings made little attempt to find signs of the cubs the mother was protecting. Most daytime defensive attacks are launched from day-beds where bear families spend the warm daytime hours—and when the most hikers and tourists are active—sacked out in thick cover often next to a big tree. Bears are very comfortable on their dish-shaped beds and sleep soundly. A male grizzly who would not allow me to approach him at 300 yards growled at me from 50 feet when I stumbled way too close to his day-bed, then humbly slinked away.

This most dangerous of situations—getting too close to a mother with cubs—does not, however, necessarily lead to contact, injuries, or death by grizzly attack. That grizzly mother only cares for the safety of her offspring; she doesn’t give a damn about you so long as you are not perceived as a threat to her young. According to my field notes, I have been charged about 14 times by mother bears. Every time, it was my fault for getting too close. But no bear ever touched me, though one mother came skidding to a stop a few feet away before she spun on her heels and fled away, gathering her cubs on the way. Thanks for the break, momma bear.

(The three main lessons for hiking occupied griz territory is first, to stay alert for bedded grizzlies and never get too close to a mamma bear; second, once the bear sees you, never run or try to climb a tree Instead, stand your ground inoffensively—don’t look directly at the bear or move a muscle; and last, in the unfortunate and exceedingly rare situation when the charging grizzly hits you and knocks you down, never fight back. Many survivors of bear attacks tell stories about the bears ceasing their attacks the minute the humans stopped resisting. That’s counterintuitive but it works.)

Natural defensive behavior includes a mother grizzly accidentally (because she doesn’t need to exterminate a person, just render you harmless to her cubs) killing a human if the hiker gets too close, then runs and fights back. That is apparently what Crosby did. Friends of mine knew this man and liked him. He did prefer to hike alone, without guns or pepper spray, off the trail in the Montana backcountry around Lake Village and Hayden Valley in Yellowstone. Those are personal decisions, even if contrary to recommendations from bear managers who say to travel in big groups and make lots of noise. These are not laws or, in my opinion, the best advice for everyone. The past 47 years, I have hiked mostly alone, bushwhacking without bear spray or guns, though I would never advise any one else to follow my lead. The point is that you can’t blame Crosby for choosing his own version of freedom and solitude. But when the news came that his body had been partially consumed by bears, even his friends gasped.

Does the feeding of wild animals upon a human corpse fall into the category of “natural behavior”? Even if it doesn’t, should every bear who feeds upon a dead man be condemned to die? When I was Green Beret medic in Vietnam, there were plenty of stories of tigers eating the bodies left dead by military collateral damage, and more tales that the big cats developed a distinct taste for human flesh. I have no idea if any of this crap is true. But these issues are clearly a consideration for the superintendent and other managers in the park.

Prior to 2011, bear policy often forgave defensive attacks by mother grizzlies, even if the human was killed. The attitude toward bears who may have tasted human flesh was reasonably unclear because if the body was out in the wilderness for any amount of time, many different bears may take turns at devouring the corpse. With DNA evidence, individual bears who ate human flesh can be identified, but does this mean the park service thinks they all should be killed?

Clearly not, because in 2011, Yellowstone experienced two human fatalities from grizzly attacks—the first in July from a mother with two cubs. The authorities deemed this a natural, defensive response and the grizzly family was allowed to live. The second fatality, involving a male hiker from Michigan, took place six weeks later and eight miles to the west of the first fatality. August is a hungry month for bears starved for protein. Grizzlies in Yellowstone who are not eating insects this time of year are on the lookout for dead animals, especially dead bison, the accidental casualties of the violent rutting season.

That’s what contributed to the demise of the Michigan man; he stumbled onto a grizzly, probably a dominant male on a day-bed, close to a dead bison, and the bear killed the man in the course of defending the carcass. The lack of hard data was partially due to the fact that by the time the rangers found the man’s body, many different grizzlies had fed upon the carcass, including the mother and cubs from the season’s first fatality. Park authorities found her double sin of a fatal defensive attack, followed six weeks later by feeding on another human, unacceptable and destroyed all three bears. But other grizzlies who fed on the man’s body were excused because it is natural to treat any carcass as food and the park couldn’t just kill off the dozen or so culpable grizzlies: The public wouldn’t stand for it, nor would such mass executions stand up to the test of “best available science.” Fear of litigation was a big consideration.

There is an important distinction here that’s central to grizzly bear management in Yellowstone: These two events are not connected. The defensive killing of a human by a bear defending cubs or a carcass is not the same as killing a human with intent to eat him or her.

There’s a crucial disconnect for the bears between the fatal natural defensive mauling by the Lake Village mother grizzly, and the subsequent feeding and stashing of the body. Yellowstone could have shed light on this most common of bear misunderstandings and still justified what they had already decided—to kill the mother grizzly and put the cubs behind zoo fences.

Instead, on Aug. 13, they killed the mother and the park issued this news release: “An important fact in the decision to euthanize the bear was that a significant portion of the body was consumed and cached with the intent to return for further feeding. Normal defensive attacks by female bears defending their young do not involve consumption of the victim’s body.”

At best, this statement is both wrong and misleading. Grizzly mothers never kill people with chow on their charging minds or in order to get food. The “consumed and cached” event is a separate issue.

This murky government policy represents the decision-making used this week to kill the Lake Village mother and condemn her cubs to zoos. It’s largely a judgment call from a closed-door, opaque policy that worries about lawsuits and covering their “public safety” ass. The public is not involved this insular governmental discussion.

In partial reaction to being left out of the process, 40,000 people signed a petition asking park officials to spare the life of this bear family. Many were outraged. Author Terry Tempest Williams, in a letter to the Livingston Enterprise, spoke against killing the bear family: “One tragic death does not warrant three more,” she wrote. The Yellowstone spokesperson responded: “A bear that has fed on human flesh can’t be left at large in the ecosystem,” adding that “Yellowstone is a national park, not a wildlife preserve.”

In defense of that ambiguous policy—full of contradictions and lacking a clear definition of how park wildlife are to be preserved for future generations—the feds do have hazy considerations that they do not usually share with the public at large. The euthanized mother, about 20 years in age, raised several litters of cubs in the developed areas of Lake Village and Fishing Bridge (these are little centers of commerce within the interior of the park). Though she had never been a “problem bear” and had shown remarkable restraint when harassed by aggressive wildlife photographers, she was considered “habituated,” meaning used to people—a grizzly who got accustomed to human food by scavenging garbage and grease from behind the Fishing Bridge restaurant. One of her male offspring, a subadult grizzly 3- or 4 years-old, was killed by park bear managers for ripping open a small backpack a hiker had thrown at him.

I stand with Williams: “One tragic death does not warrant three more.” Despite the 40,000 protests, the bear family is gone. My chief concern is how easy it has become to kill a grizzly in Yellowstone. At least the Lake Village grizzly incident played out in front of a large human audience. Other bears live near the remote edges of the park’s ecosystem where, for instance, they sometimes stray into ill-advised sheep grazing allotments. We seldom hear of these grizzly bears. Their lives are expendable and “problem” bears can be quietly euthanized as a prophylactic against future depredations. Here is arbitrary and often secret decision-making by bear managers.

It’s difficult to see any “policy” at all.

“As managers of Yellowstone National Park, we balance the preservation of park resources with public safety,” says Superintendent Wenk. “Our decision [to remove the grizzly family] takes into account the facts of the case, the goals of the bear management program, and the long-term viability of the grizzly bear population as a whole, rather than an individual bear.”

Making matters worse, the park’s new goal of bear management will soon involve stripping the grizzly of its threatened status under the Endangered Species Act and, yes, their decision to get rid of this grizzly family fits smoothly into this conversion. This federal program is known as delisting.

The government’s promise to remove all current federal protections for grizzlies constitutes the greatest threat to the bears stranded in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The final report of the Interagency Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Study Team was released to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014. All members, including those working directly for Yellowstone, voted unanimously to strip the grizzly of Endangered Species Act protections.

Upon delisting, grizzly bear management would be handed over to the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, which have planned to immediately begin issuing trophy grizzly bear hunting licenses. They’ve already said so. Exactly how many hunting permits will be offered and how successful those hunts will be is unknown, but what is clear is that an atmosphere will be created throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem where it is very easy to kill a grizzly—for any reason.

Grizzlies have one of the lowest reproductive rates of any land mammal; once the number of bear deaths outstrip the number of cubs born, the Yellowstone grizzly is on the road to extinction. I believe this is what delisting the Yellowstone grizzly will lead to. Female grizzlies, like that Lake Village mother with her two cubs, are the reproductive engines that determine a viable bear population. Individual bears do matter.

With the cavalier, deadly treatment of this particular grizzly family, Yellowstone’s bear management policy already seems to have begun the transition to delisting. Grizzly lives are cheap and are about to get cheaper.