A Death in Yellowstone
On the trail of a killer grizzly bear.
That was how grizzlies were treated if they injured humans in the early days of Yellowstone: They were killed.
The first park superintendents were more interested in attracting and accommodating tourists than they were in bear conservation. When Yellowstone was founded as the country’s original National Park in 1872, its goal, as stated in the federal Yellowstone Act, was to be "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” To the extent that conserving the grizzlies mattered at all, it was to keep them around for human entertainment. No one was really keeping track of how many were around back then, but there seemed to be enough to keep up Yellowstone’s reputation as “the bear park.”
The idea that grizzlies in Yellowstone were just a goofy sideshow would persist for several decades. Grizzly bears are fairly solitary animals, and there weren’t that many people in Yellowstone at the beginning of the 20th century, so encounters were rare. Even though park visitors were tacitly encouraged to go looking for bears, there was only one bear-related death besides Welch’s in Yellowstone through the 1960s.
But a confluence of factors fundamentally changed the nature of human–grizzly relations. First, visitation to National Parks all over the country exploded. By 1965, more than 2 million people were arriving in Yellowstone every year, more than twice as many as in 1950. There were more opportunities than ever before for people and bears to interact, sometimes in violent ways. At the same time, the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 and the burgeoning environmental movement that soon followed helped popularize the idea that grizzlies should be preserved for their own sake. All of a sudden the government needed a way to resolve interspecies conflicts that went beyond filling barrels with garbage and dynamite.
A fully functioning bear justice system couldn’t be created overnight. First, park officials needed to learn much more about grizzly behavior, and in the meantime, the Craighead brothers’ research made it clear that open garbage dumps in the park were greatly contributing to human injuries. The dumps made bears associate people with food—a recipe for danger. The Craigheads' warnings were borne out in August 1967, on what would be dubbed “The Night of the Grizzlies” by the writer Jack Olsen, who penned a best-seller about it. Two 19-year-old girls, camping 10 miles apart from each other in Glacier National Park, were killed by separate garbage-fed bears while they were sleeping.
The Night of the Grizzlies was a PR disaster for the National Park Service, and led some people to call on the Park Service to destroy all bears on federal land. Yellowstone brass responded to the crisis by creating a hands-on grizzly management program, and eliminating all of the dumps on-site. Once again, the Craighead brothers warned of dangers ahead. Closing the dumps too quickly, they said, would leave the grizzlies confused and unstable. They proposed a more gradual withdrawal of garbage, and the placement of elk and bison carcasses to help bears learn what they might eat instead. But the emergency plan went ahead, and garbage-starved grizzlies were left to seek food outside the borders of the park, where trash was more plentiful and they didn’t enjoy any protection from hunters or ranchers. This led to the shootings of scores of grizzlies by private citizens in the greater Yellowstone region.
By 1975, there were just a few hundred bears left in the park, and the grizzly was listed as being “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Diminished grizzly populations in four other ecosystems in the Western United States—including bears in Glacier National Park in Montana, North Cascades National Park in Washington State, and the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho and Washington—would also be protected under the ESA. There were fewer than a thousand grizzlies in the continental United States at that point, down from tens of thousands at the beginning of the 19th century. Now grizzlies could not be shot and killed anywhere in the continental U.S., unless the shooter was acting in self-defense. But park managers in Yellowstone and elsewhere still had the power to execute a rogue bear when necessary, and they needed clear instructions on when and how to use it. In the mid-1980s, a group of federal and state wildlife biologists called the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee put out a set of formal guidelines—sort of like a penal code for wild animals.
The rules are quite elaborate but essentially they state: If a grizzly hurts someone while acting in a naturally aggressive way, then the bear goes free. If a grizzly acts unnaturally aggressive, though, and injures a person, it must be euthanized. It all comes down to the animal’s state of mind.
It’s a squirrely notion, that a team of government biologists might be able to figure out why a bear does the things it does, or whether any bear behavior could truly be described as “unnatural.” But whatever its shortcomings, the grizzly justice system has been mostly successful over the years since it was introduced, and is reasonably popular. People seem to like the fact that a female bear can kill someone while protecting her cubs and be acquitted of the crime. According to a poll conducted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 2001, more than 70 percent of Wyoming residents believe that grizzly bears are a benefit to the state and are an important component of the Yellowstone ecosystem. They want grizzlies to have the benefit of the doubt.
Chris Servheen wonders if that could change. After two grizzly-related fatalities in one summer, he worries that a forgiving bear justice system might lose the support of the public. The grizzly population has tripled in size since the 1980s, and some bears have started expanding their ranges far outside Yellowstone’s borders. What if people begin to wonder whether preserving bears is more trouble than it’s worth? What if they start agitating for a different kind of bear justice, one that harkens back to the days of Old Two Toes?