The deaths of two grizzly bears in Glacier National Park last week has caused a stir in western Montana as bear biologists evaluate the park’s decision to remove a mother and two of her cubs.
Biologist Charles Jonkel of the Great Bear Foundation in Missoula disagreed with the killings and reported numerous phone calls from concerned residents.
“The level of anger down here, oh my God, it’s unbelievable,” Jonkel said. “All kinds of people are calling me and they are mad.”
The reaction is in response to Glacier Park official’s decision to kill a 17-year-old female grizzly bear that had become too familiar with humans and often occupied campgrounds near her habitat around Oldman Lake.
Glacier Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright said the bear and her yearling cubs had displayed “overt conditioned behavior” toward humans in recent years.
“Park resource personnel worked to keep this bear and her offspring in the wild for five years, but given her most recent display of over-familiarity in combination with her history of habituation, we determined that the three grizzlies posed an unacceptable threat to human health and safety,” Cartwright said in a press release.
After rangers shot the mother 300 yards from the Oldman Lake Campground on the evening of Aug. 17, they went back to tranquilize her two yearlings cubs. One of the cubs died after being darted, despite ranger efforts with mouth-to-nose CPR. An animal autopsy in Bozeman showed that the cub died from internal bleeding from a lacerated jugular vein. The cause of the laceration was not determined.
The surviving female yearling, which park rangers estimated weighed 80 to 100 pounds, was transferred from the park on Aug. 18, on its way to the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Efforts to relocate the entire family group were unsuccessful because other federal agencies declined to take the bears, Park Ranger Jack Potter said.
But Jonkel, who has been studying bears for 50 years, said he was confused as to why the park didn’t use other available options.
“Why didn’t they close the campground? Why didn’t they close the whole area?” Jonkel asked, adding that the bears paid for mistakes made by people who left out food and then left the park.
Potter said the park did close the campground for two years in an effort to change the bear’s behaviors. However, he said the bear visited several campgrounds and not only the ones the park closed.
The bears had been observed approaching occupied campgrounds, forcing hikers off trails and sniffing at tents during the night. Aversion treatments like noise and bear dogs were not working, park officials said.
The Wind River Bear Institute, a company that specializes in bear aversion treatments, worked with the sow bear in 2005 and 2006. Carrie Hunt, founder and bear biologist, said her company works with Karelian bear dogs, rubber bullets and other non-lethal methods to help bears understand that they should take cover from humans and walk away. She calls it “bear shepherding.”
The Oldman Lake bear made strides in 2005 and 2006, Hunt said, and was “good as gold” in 2007 and 2008. It was not until 2009 that she reappeared, exhibiting the same overly familiar behavior. Without “booster” aversion treatments, Hunt said the bear would remain a hazard and she supported the park’s actions.
“Given the fact that it’s very difficult to monitor her and do the booster work (in the backcountry), the park basically ran out of resources,” Hunt said. “If they could not do booster work because they did not have resources, she needed to be removed because she was too high of a risk.”
The park had continued aversion therapy without the bear dogs, Potter said, but rangers felt the bear was not reacting as it had in the past. The decision to remove the bear was a difficult one, he said, but necessary.
Hunt said she hopes the bear’s death will provide enough reason for the park to receive appropriations for annual aversion treatments to teach bears and people about interacting with one another. Though the park has “bent over backwards” to treat the bears, Hunt said budget cuts in the park will make it almost impossible to keep treatments updated, creating an uncertain future for problem bears.
Park officials said the public should never assume a troublesome bear will always be killed, because that view could lead to fewer reports and could leave problem bears untreated for longer than they should be, Potter said.
“You may think you’re helping the bear by not reporting it, but you’re not,” Potter said. “We have got to prevent bears from becoming conditioned.”
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