A human-bear tragedy in Yellowstone


“Blaze” & cub in 2011; Amy Gerber photo. Click image for more photos.

A 63-year-old male hiker is dead, killed and partially consumed by a grizzly bear while hiking in Yellowstone National Park. A 259-pound mother grizzly, who was at least 15 years old, is also dead, killed by the caretakers of her home in Yellowstone National Park. Her two female cubs-of-the-year, likely seven or eight months old, are dead insofar as their ability to live wild, free-ranging lives goes; they’ve been shipped off to the Toledo Zoo for lifetime incarceration.

It was the hiker–a man referred to by the media as “an experienced hiker”–who set this string of tragedies in motion by breaking cardinal rules for hiking in griz country: he hiked alone, off trail, without bear spray. While acknowledging that his tragic death has left a grieving human family, his apparent lack of regard for the safety measures that could have saved his life as well as the bears’ lives is squarely responsible. Bears do what bears do for their own reasons. When we enter their home, it’s up to us to do so with respect and humility.

Having backpacked in grizzly country, I can tell you first-hand it’s a humbling experience to enter the Great Bear’s home. Safety recommendations are fervently observed–we’ve enlisted another couple to join us (groups of three or more are rarely bothered); kept spotless camps with bear-proof food canisters hung from trees; and carried multiple canisters of bear spray for our group. Upon hiking out to Yellowstone’s south entrance the last morning of one multi-day trip, we found ourselves walking on fresh griz tracks imprinted in the trail’s damp footbed. We HEY BEARed ourselves hoarse while one of us–loudly and repeatedly–sang a few bars from the Isley Brothers (it’s a wonder I wasn’t mauled by my own companions). On another trip, just two of us this time, our planned route on the Beartooth Plateau was scrapped when we spied fresh tracks heading out on the same trail we’d planned to travel. Discretion is the better part of valor.

Sadly, we can’t ask the hiker who was killed–a seasonal park employee–why he chose to hike alone and without bear spray. We’ll never know if he called out to announce his presence or if he walked silently, startling the bear into action. We can’t know why this mom grizzly, a ferocious protector of cubs but one with no prior record of conflicts, partially consumed and cached the body:

And therein lies the crux: the consumption of the victim. According to a long, investigative piece in Slate Magazine,

In July of 2011, a grizzly sow with cubs killed a hiking tourist in Yellowstone (hiker error figured into this fatality, also; watch a computer-generated reenactment of that attack here), but that mom’s action was deemed strictly defensive–she immediately retreated–and her life spared. Some seven weeks later and eight miles away from the July fatality, a lone hiker was killed, partially consumed, and apparently cached. DNA testing revealed that the same bear was at least present at the scene; she was captured and killed, her cubs doomed to diminished lives in captivity (view a timeline of these events).

Yellowstone personnel don’t want to kill bears–I believe this–they act as they believe they must to mitigate risk for the three-plus million visitors who flood into the park each year. It’s a good reminder that wildlife conservation–like all our other conflicted relationships with nonhuman animals–is premised on speciesism. Who are we to decree which animal behavior is natural (and acceptable) and which is unnatural (and unacceptable)? Why, we are the humans!–of course!

Predictably, social media is ablaze (view 1.8k comments here) with debate over the park’s decision to execute (execute, not “euthanize”) the bear, with commenters divided into three camps: those who believe the bear must be killed for her predatory behavior toward a human; those who maintain that the bear was only being a bear in her own home and should live; and the wafflers who want her to live but consider the consumption of a human too troubling. Some commenters in both the first and third groups cite the idea that bears develop a taste for human blood once they’ve imbibed and must be exterminated, but this has been dismissed by Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator. “That’s for horror stories in movies,” he told Slate in 2012. “Bears don’t get a taste for human blood. There’s no studies that show that.”

Adding to the emotional drama of this particular human/bear tragedy is the fact that this grizzly was an oft-sighted and much-photographed bear with a fan base that had informally named her Blaze for the lighter patch of fur on her side (photos). A petition appealing for her life collected over 143,170 signatures; now that she’s dead,petitioners are focusing on the cubs, though I heard on the local news last night that they were already en route to Toledo, where today’s editorial in The Blade has this to say:

Learn more:

  • Yellowstone National Park news release
  • “A Death in Yellowstone,” Slate Magazine, April 2, 2012
  • Marc Bekoff commentary in Psychology Today
  • Doug Peacock commentary, author of Grizzly Years: In search of the American wilderness
  • “Grizzly psychosis at the zoo: There’s no place like home,” blog post & 15-sec. video of orphaned bears from Montana sent to a small zoo where they exhibit repetitive, psychotic behavior.
  • “No country for old bears,” a piece from Oct. 2014 about an elderly Yellowstone bear extecuted by the state of Montana for his “history of conflict.”

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