How Wildlife Investigators Found a Killer Grizzly in Yellowstone

A grizzly bear crime
April 2 2012 6:00 AM

A Death in Yellowstone

On the trail of a killer grizzly bear.

The Wapiti grizzly sow with her cubs in June, 2011
The Wapiti sow with her cubs in June, 2011, before she was a suspect in any crimes

Photograph by James Yule.

Also see our Magnum Photos gallery on bears.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

A grizzly was ambling along the Yellowstone River on a clear day in late September 2011, when she lifted her nose up and smelled something familiar in the air. She couldn’t tell quite what it was, but it smelled like food. Maybe the shredded remains of a bison taken down by a wolf pack, its innards sloughing out of its stomach and onto the riverbank. The sow may have spent the day digging up pocket gophers, but a feast like this would really help her to pack on weight. Within eight weeks she'd be taking her two young cubs into a den in the side of a slope for the long Western winter. They needed fat, and soon.

After months of a diet consisting mostly of grass and nuts and roots, the scent of dead meat was impossible to resist. The mother grizzly walked in the direction of the carrion with her cubs scrambling along behind her. The bigger one, with the blond face, was probably closer on his mother’s heels, with his brother, the color of burnt sienna, lagging behind. The sow had to keep a close eye on her offspring. There was always the threat of male bears trying to kill her family. They knew she wouldn’t go into heat again as long as her cubs were with her.

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Finally they located the source of the delicious smell—a wheeled, 10-foot-long aluminum tunnel, open on one end, that had been deposited near the river just south of a campground. The mother bear stuck her snout in the tunnel and then climbed in toward the meat. It was roadkill, probably elk or bison. When she touched the bait, a trapdoor dropped behind her.

She spent a long, desperate evening in that trap. Her two cubs stayed close by, but she could only watch them and smell their scent through the ventilation holes at the front and back ends of the tube. At first she might have been agitated, clawing against the smooth metal insides of the trap. But as the hours slipped by, she may have settled into her prison, resigned to her fate.

After daybreak, she heard a whap-whap-whap sound, like the heavy beating of wings, and then different strange noises from outside the tunnel. As she saw people approaching, she began to get angry. Her cubs backed off at the first sight of the humans, but they returned just minutes later when they smelled more dead meat: Both were soon coerced into another barrel-shaped piece of metal. Once all three animals had been captured, the tubes were wheeled onto a helicopter and flown several miles away, to another part of Yellowstone National Park. That’s where everything went black.

While the mother bear was sedated, government biologists pulled hairs from her body, and took a vial of blood from her wrist. Then they trucked her to a large area at Yellowstone Headquarters known as the “bear room,” and kept her there in the tube for three days, fed and cared for by Yellowstone staff. Her cubs were being held in the bear room, too, but she couldn’t touch them, couldn’t cuff them affectionately with the back of her paw if they were misbehaving.

On the morning of Oct. 2, 2011—the sow’s fourth day in captivity—the bear management team at Yellowstone did something they absolutely hate to do. Kerry Gunther, the head bear manager at Yellowstone, stopped by the headquarters with his wife. It was his 53rd birthday, and he wanted the company for the grim task he faced.

His wife was keeping notes when Gunther and his technician injected the bear with a dose of Telazol, a larger helping of the same sedative they had used earlier to take the blood sample. Then one of them shot a captive deadbolt—the kind used in industrial slaughterhouses—directly into the animal's brain.

The Wapiti sow’s cubs, Roosevelt and Grant.
The Wapiti sow’s cubs, Roosevelt and Grant, taken after their mother’s death

Courtesy of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.

It took a couple of minutes for the mother grizzly to stop breathing, and for her heart to stop beating. For her cubs, this marked the end of their life of freedom. Eventually, they would be shipped off to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a tourist attraction in West Yellowstone, Mont., where they will spend the rest of their lives.