Wednesday, August 12, 2015

To Kill a Grizzly or Not to Kill?

Photo courtesy of U.S. Park Service
"No doubt about it, the presence of bear, especially grizzly bear, adds a spicy titillation to a stroll in the woods. My bear-loving friend Peacock goes so far as to define wilderness as a place and only a place where one enjoys the opportunity of being attacked by a dangerous wild animal. Any places that lacks GRIZ, or lions or tigers, or a rhino or two, is not, in his opinion, worthy of the name 'wilderness.' A good definition, worthy of serious consideration. A wild place without dangers is an absurdity, although I realize that danger creates administrative problems for park and forest managers. But we must not allow our national parks and national forests to be degraded to the status of mere playgrounds. Open to all, yes of course. But -- enter at your own risk."  -- Edward Abbey

A 63-year-old man named Lance Crosby of Billings, Montana, was killed and partially-consumed by a grizzly bear (or two) in Yellowstone National Park last Friday, August 7, near a popular trail in the Lake Village area. Crosby was an employee of Medcor, an urgent care company, where he worked as a nurse within the Park. By all accounts, he was an experienced hiker who loved the wilds, including wild grizzlies. The suspected bear is a sow who had cubs with her. Those who have pieced the incident together surmise this: Crosby was hiking alone near the Elephant Back Trail when he likely startled the sow and her cubs while the bears were resting. The sow responded as mother grizzlies often naturally do -- aggressively defending her cub. Extensive wounds were found on Crosby's arms, probably from trying to fend off the attack.

Three bears have been captured in the area, a sow and two cubs. If the adult bear's DNA matches those of hair and other evidence gathered at the scene the park service says it will "euthanize" her -- a less harsh way of saying they will kill her. They may kill the cubs, too, if they can't find a zoo or some other captive future for the poor young grizzly. (A fate worse than death. Live free or die, I say.)

Doug Peacock -- author of Grizzly Years, who has spent more time around and knows wild grizzlies and their behavior better than anyone else I have ever heard of -- has been pleading for sparing the bear. He also rightfully points out that the sow who apparently killed Crosby is not necessarily the same bear that partially consumed him. She likely defended her cubs and got out of there; another grizzly, maybe a lone boar, could have come along and found the dead body and took advantage of an easy meal. That's what wild animals sometimes do in wild places.

Some folks speculate that once a bear has tasted human flesh it is likely to kill and consume people again. There is absolutely no evidence to support such a prevailing myth. But the Park Service says it can not take the risk.
"Park managers do not take the decision to kill a bear lightly," says Yellowstone National Park Supervisor Dan Wenk. "We need to balance the protection of Park resources and public safety." Then again, there is also risk in losing a healthy, breading female grizzly within a population of grizzlies already experiencing threats and stress from the continued demise of wild places and growing impacts from climate change.

Some are criticizing Crosby, saying he could not have been too "experienced" if he was hiking off trail, alone and not carrying bear spray.  I, and many other experienced wilderness hikers and advocates I know, often hike off trail, alone and do not carry bear spray. When I roam the wilds I do not see myself as a "tourist" visiting what little remains of wild places set aside for human enjoyment; I see myself as attempting to immerse myself in what little remains of the real world and remain connected to my wild, natural roots. Predators are part of that real world. Risks are part of that real world.  If I were to be killed by lightning, or drowning, or falling off a cliff (which I've come close to, and which kills far, far more people than bears do) or die of a heart attack, I would not want federal land managers to require me to carry a lightning rod or a defibrillator, or wear a life jacket, or fence off rivers and cliffs, or sanitize the wilds in any way to make it more safe for humans who have already altered and dominate most of our sick planet.

As Doug Peacock says, bear spray can give people a false sense of security and keep them from being attune to and aware of their surroundings. When I hike alone in grizzly country I keep alert at a level I have rarely experienced outside of the wilds. I feel more alive and connected than I have ever felt outside of the wilds. Bears intimately know their world -- most of the time I am sure they can hear, smell and sense my presence. Sometimes I can hear, smell and sense them. When I do I go to full alert, I back off, I act as non-threatening as possible and I give them the space and respect they demand and deserve.

But sometimes, in the wild, unfortunate things happen.

If I am ever by chance killed by a grizzly I have made it clear to family and friends that I would not want the bear to pay the price for acting naturally in its own home. I respect the wilds, and respect wild grizzlies, too much for that. I am willing to take the risk.

Doug Peacock says Crosby likely felt the same. Perhaps. Regardless, he entered the home of the bear and likely knew the risks. He likely felt that wild adventures and wild risks make life worth living.

So what to do? Here's Doug Peacock's idea: Put an ear tag and radio collar on the bear and let her go, so her movements and activities can be closely monitored. But don't kill her. Seems fair enough.

Keep it wild! 

Here is what Doug Peacock recently wrote of the incident:

"We need to honor this hiker and let the mother bear roam wild. The reason: Mother grizzlies never intentionally kill humans; they don't care about us, only the safety of their cubs. The hiker surprised the sow grizzly. We will never know exactly how but likely she was on a day bed and he got too close. The hiker had wounds on his arms, indicating he probably fought back, an understandable but bad reaction to a mother bear to whom resistance means her cubs are still in danger. We don't know why she made contact; close proximity possibly made worse by running. Running or trying to climb a tree after a mother grizzly with cubs is the worst choice, followed by fighting back. Apparently, the hiker's body was cached and fed upon. This most disturbing of consequences needs to seen in context of the natural world of the bear. Anything dead out there is Yellowstone this time of year is seen as a most valuable food source during the lean times of summer. Witness past bison carcasses in Hayden Valley where humans got too close, then in turn were eaten too. Once dead, a human is like any other animal. If several grizzlies are around, the most dominant animal, often a big male, will appropriate the carcass. So if a mother bear killed a human in perceived defense of her cubs, that doesn't mean she cached or fed on the body. The salient point here: This mother bear is no more likely to repeat this most natural of aggression -- kill, or consume a human -- than any other mother grizzly bear in the world. The feds are more nervous about litigation and bad press than public safety. The only way to totally protect the public from wild bears and ensure safety for park visitors is to kill off all the grizzlies. The federal agencies don't want that any more than we do. Help them clarify their thinking. This was a defensive natural act for a wild grizzly. It will probably never happen again to this mother bear, though of course it might--and that is the great value of wilderness and their risky animals. The hiker was experienced, knew the area well and loved to take this hike. His now missing opinion is what would have mattered to me: What would he have wanted for the fate of this bear?"

Please let the Park Service know how you feel by contacting
Kerry Gunther, head bear manager at Yellowstone, at (307) 344-2162 or email him at: 

UPDATE (August 13, 2015, 12:30):  The Park Service has decided to kill the sow and maybe the two cubs. From Doug Peacock: "The news is that Yellowstone Park officials will kill this mother bear, as they said they would from the beginning. Despite all your pleas for logic, fairness and humane treatment of this grizzly family, a mother and two cubs of the year, they will be killed."  For more, click here: Murder in Yellowstone: Grizzly Family is Sacrificed for Fear of Litigation. 

UPDATE (August 13, 2015, 4:00): Park Service officials killed the adult sow grizzly today. Arrangements have been made to transfer the two cubs to a facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.


  1. Too true, David. I agree - the most engaged I have ever been in the wild is either as predator or prey. I wouldn't trade either experience. BTW, I hope all goes well in your life. Still in Missoula??

    1. Good to hear from you. Yup, still in Missoula and loving it! I hope you are well.