This past summer, while I was working for a conservation group to reduce conflicts between grizzly bears and humans in western Montana, one of my trail cameras caught video footage of a mortally wounded sow. She was grievously injured—disfigured and blasted apart from snout to ears, with weeping sores across her muzzle and bones exposed, so that she seemed to me the very face of death and desperation.
She walked into the frame, paused for a look at the far horizon, and then pressed on with pain in every slow step. A week later, I watched a biologist put her down with a merciful, well-placed shot and helped him load her corpse into a pickup truck for necropsy.
Unable to eat, the grizzly had shrunk to skin and bones. Her long-clawed, padded feet looked far too big for her body, and the shaggy, ruined head seemed to outweigh the rest of her combined. The biologist knew the sow and had captured her ten years ago for a study. He said:
“She was a good bear, a really good bear. Sixteen years old, at least, and she never caused trouble.”
Shortly afterward, he discovered shotgun pellets throughout her wounds.
This dispatch is about the sow and what she left behind—a pair of female cubs, which are now the property and concern of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and which must find a permanent home in the coming weeks or face euthanasia’s cold needle.
In partnership with state and federal agencies, I have been working toward a better outcome for the cubs. We have contacted the American Zoo Association (AZA) and the Zoological Association of America (ZAA). So far, from facilities currently equipped to receive and house grizzlies, the answer has been some version of: We’re sorry, we’re sympathetic, but there’s just no room at the inn.
The sow is gone, a casualty of the uneasy frontier between human development and wilderness. The cubs—which, being female, represent a significant part of the grizzly’s genetic future—can never be returned to the wild. Though they are lost to the cause of furthering their species, the lives of these bears still have great value. Their story can help us to better understand what it takes to live with large carnivores.
Having known both the mother and daughters, I am not ready to see the cubs destroyed and write this matter off as another small tragedy in a large, rough world. Instead, I entertain flashes of hope. I hope, for instance, that a curator at an AZA or ZAA accredited facility is teetering on the brink of getting in touch, thinking: Maybe if we put the roe deer over there, moved the bison a bit—then maybe we could find some room for the little buggers.
I hope that someone, upon reading this, might present the issue to a zoo director capable of doing something about it. I hope that an outpouring of care and concern for the cubs might be able to change the trajectory of their lives. Simply put, I hope that showing this difficult situation to a great many people may help to resolve it.
I know from long and difficult experience that killing an animal makes a person feel simultaneously wild and broken. The process of trying to save these cubs, on the other hand, has made me feel intensely human—conflicted, passionate and vulnerable—and whole.
This, then, is a howl into the electronic wilderness. This is a bottled message cast onto the digital sea. I hope the missive finds its mark, reaching a sympathetic ear.
Please contact the non-profit group People and Carnivores with any information that may lead to the placement of the cubs at an AZA or ZAA accredited facility. The group has established an emergency fund to assist with transport and placement of the cubs.
Bryce Andrews is the author of Badluck Way. He lives and works in Montana.