A Death in Yellowstone
On the trail of a killer grizzly bear.
"Be quiet. Don’t move," Peacock whisper-grunts, at which point I look up to see a mother grizzly with a young cub. They’re about 200 yards from us, digging for roots. The mother bear is pawing at the ground, and her cub sticks close to her. "Back up slowly," Doug says. "If the mother lifts her head, stop moving." We start moving backward slowly and deliberately. I can’t remember being so aware of each step, of the rustling of my hiking pants. I keep looking back up at the bears, wondering what they’re thinking, until we’re a safe distance away, hiding behind a clump of trees. Can they smell us? Do they see us? Are they choosing to ignore us, giving us a small measure of grace?
While we’re out there, I remember something Andrea said to me in the car, about why Yellowstone is so powerful. "Doug’s theory is that the element of risk is what’s important. It’s what makes wilderness wild." We’re so quiet I can hear my own quick, scared, rabbity breaths, and as I revel in my own fear I realize they’re right.
It occurs to me later that this moment perfectly illustrates what Chris Servheen calls "the Park Service paradox." City slickers like me go to Yellowstone to feel humbled by nature, by its sheer beauty and its uncontrollability—that’s part of the purpose of the Park System, it’s there for the enjoyment of the people. But the park is ultimately a human creation: Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its 3 million yearly visitors safe. Doug Peacock might dream of a world where grizzlies can be left alone, but that’s just not possible in the increasingly civilized American West. Sometimes bears need to be euthanized in order to "err on the side of human safety," as Kerry Gunther puts it.
Applying a human-constructed justice system to grizzly bears tries to reconcile this paradox, but it will never be a perfect fix. There are always going to be aspects of grizzly bear behavior that are inexplicable, and that’s what makes them awe-inspiring. That’s also what makes a bear manager’s job so difficult. "As a scientist I always try to seek some kind of logical events that led to this thing happening," Chris Servheen says. When a hunter is gutting an elk and a grizzly attacks him—that makes sense. When a grizzly is defending her cubs, like the Wapiti sow seemed to be when she killed Brian Matayoshi, that makes sense, too. But John Wallace’s death wasn’t like that. He was just sitting on a log, having a snack in the summer sun. "Those cases are puzzling," Servheen says, "and they leave you lying awake at night trying to figure out what happened."