What We’ve Learned About Bears

We’re just going to have to learn how to better live alongside bears

By Rob Breeding

I just read the remarkable recounting of that night in Glacier National Park back in 1967 – infamously known as the “Night of the Grizzlies” – penned by a pair of reporters at this newspaper. Their story, as well as the documentary that recently drew airtime on MontanaPBS marking the tragedy’s 50-year anniversary, are chilling.

It’s especially so because the victims that night – Michele Koons and Julie Helgeson – were young and tragedies of youth hit us like a sucker punch to the gut. All that hope and promise taken away so suddenly.

The other thing so striking about the story is how clueless we were about bears. Grizzlies were teetering on the brink of extinction in the lower 48 back then, and accounts from that time suggest our recovery plan was basically spreading garbage about and watching the bruins scavenge stale bread.

It’s stunning to be reminded we were feeding bears within viewing distance of Granite Park Chalet, just to provide trekkers with evening entertainment, while encouraging dispersed camping a few hundred yards away.

We now know what happened that night was inevitable.

This same feed-the-bears mentality was in place in Yellowstone, where the refuse pile was a popular tourist attraction. Old photos show bears gathered around garbage dumps in the park, much like they assemble at Brooks Falls in Alaska, where today tourists watch the fishing bears from a designated viewing platform.

At Brooks Falls at least, the bears’ hunger is satiated by abundant salmon, rather than human-associated garbage.

Decades ago I read Alston Chase’s “Playing God in Yellowstone,” and for a time he had me convinced the garbage-dump-feeding program was sound management and should be resumed for the benefit of the bears. Elements of Chase’s argument remain persuasive, including the notion that humans have played a role in natural ecosystems in North America at least since the retreat of glaciers began more than 10,000 years ago. It’s a fact of life that humans make garbage – a compelling theory is that scavenging dumps played a role in the evolution of wolf to dog – and omnivorous grizzly bears have certainly scavenged our leftovers for as long as we’ve been creating them.

That’s something we should not forget about bears. They are magnificent animals, and they remain magnificent even when they are picking through rotten elk carcasses in spring, or running a wolf pack off a kill or even when they are chomping down on the uneaten remains of freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini left by a sloppy camper. Scavenging is what bears do.

But the scale and magnitude of the dumps, along with the danger of training bears to associate humans with food, led to the closure of the final Yellowstone dump in 1970. And the recovery of the bear in the following decades that resulted in the decision to delist grizzlies earlier this year suggests Chase’s bear-feeding theory was overly simplistic, and maybe driven more by an anti-Park Service ideology. The threats to bears in the lower 48 are complex, and extend well beyond park boundaries.

We may soon see hunting of grizzly bears return. Folks on the Wyoming side of Yellowstone are clamoring for it. Another sign of the bear’s continued renaissance is the increasing frequency of human-griz encounters in the country east of the park. As their numbers grow, bears are naturally moving back into habitat they once frequented before we nearly killed them off. I doubt limited hunting will stave off range expansion, however, and widespread bear genocide won’t be tolerated.

We’re just going to have to learn how to better live alongside bears.

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