A bear of a season


The developed Yellowstone campground where John Wallace set up his tent last Wednesday probably made the national park seem relatively innocuous to the 59-year-old Michigan resident. It's peak season, after all, and the place was likely humming with human activity, cars, chatter -- those signs of weird, woodsy civilization peculiar to the West's iconic natural attractions that can mask such places' underlying wildness.

Sometime that same day or the next, Wallace set out alone on the Mary Mountain Trail, which winds 21 miles through the Hayden Valley and over Mary Mountain, offering views of meadows frequented by bison ... and passing into grizzly territory.

On Friday, two unfortunate hikers stumbled across Wallace's lifeless body 5 miles down the trail. An autopsy confirmed that he had been fatally mauled by a grizzly bear. His death is the second grizzly-related fatality this summer in a park that hadn't had a deadly mauling by a grizzly since 1986, and the fourth in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the last two years. The circumstances of the latest attack are still unclear.

But when combined with the long list of aggressive bear encounters that have made headlines across the West this summer, it might lead you to think there's something unusual afoot:

But at least where fatal attacks are concerned, it doesn't seem to be an especially unusual season. Bears kill an average of three people per year in North America, according to bear attack expert Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary -- a pretty paltry number when you consider that there are 1 million black bears and 70,000 grizzlies roaming the U.S. and Canada. Oftentimes, bear-human encounters increase in years when natural food sources are scarce. Texas' landmark drought has black bears acting a bit out of the ordinary, for instance. But it's been a year flush with moisture in much of the rest of the West, which should help keep food plentiful.

So what's the takehome? It's not rocket science: Bears are wild animals and powerful predators, and more and more people are spending time playing in the woods or moving their homes into bear country. Not only that, but climate change may already be forcing bears to wander farther afield for food. It's a delicate situation that demands that people act as respectfully as possible to head off conflicts. In residential areas, that means locking down garbage; in backcountry areas, it means doing everything possible to avoid teaching whip-smart bears to associate people with food. For a more comprehensive list of tips, check out the Center for Wildlife Information's Bear Aware page, or your local state wildlife department website (here's Colorado's).

And keep in mind that no matter what anyone does, casualties are inevitable on both sides, but in sum total they will always be much worse for bears. By around this time in 2009, that same year a black bear killed an older woman near Ouray, Colo., state officials had killed 25 "problem" black bears. And in California as of 2007, officials reportedly offed an estimated 100 problem black bears on average per year.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News (and the former black bear beat reporter for the Aspen Daily News).

 Photo of grizzly tracks in Alaska's Katmai Wildlife Refuge courtesy of Blue Moonbeam Studio.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Aug 30, 2011 10:45 AM
You might want to make a correction so as not to say bad things about a dead man. Neither Brian Matayoshi nor his wife did any thing to harm the cubs of the sow that killed him did they? If you make the correction please erase this comment also.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 30, 2011 11:58 AM
Robb--That's true, but the blog doesn't suggest that they did do anything to harm the cubs. It's well understood that mama grizzly bears can be very aggressive when it comes to their cubs' well-being and often act defensively even if someone just accidentally gets too close. Brian Matayoshi was extraordinarily unlucky. If you read the release from the park service about the incident (which is linked to in that section of the post) -- you'll see that the Matayoshis accidentally came within 100 yards of a mother bear with cubs. They began to walk away, as you are supposed to in such situations, but the bear charged anyway.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 30, 2011 01:55 PM
And here's an amazing statistic I stumbled across today in this great article http://www.idahostatesman.c[…]conflict.html#ixzz1WXmKtu5V :

"In Yellowstone, education and other efforts have helped managers reduce bear-caused injuries from an average of 47.9 a year in the 1930s — when just around 300,000 people visited each year — to an average of 5.1 injuries a year in the 2000s, even as park visitors have risen to nearly 3 million a year."
Edwin D Coleman III
Edwin D Coleman III says:
Aug 30, 2011 03:19 PM
I guess now we're going to have to kill all the bears. Following the same (il-)logic as the wolf-haters (from which creature there hasn't been a single documented fatality in over a century), they all gotta go!
George McCloskey
George McCloskey says:
Aug 30, 2011 08:44 PM
Ed your comments are not at all constructive or kind.
Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare says:
Aug 30, 2011 10:44 PM
...or accurate. Rhetoric ain't all it's cracked up to be Ed.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Aug 31, 2011 06:54 AM
Regarding the Matayoshis. The Park Service chose it’s words with care by saying the bear was acting in a “defensive nature”, as indeed sow grizzlies with cubs are wont to do. What they did not do was say that the bear was defending it’s cubs, as that would imply that the bear was acting on more than a perceived threat. In the words of the Park Service, they “didn’t want to go there”. A masterful stroke of PR, now two months later the fib is repeated in what has become the media narrative, the mama bear was just defending her cubs, there needs to be reason for everything even if untrue.

Saying that the bear is defending itself by killing someone who was 300 feet and walking away though, is only part of the story. Of course there is the usual attempt to blame all victims, the list of correct ways to act and things to do grow longer with every mauling. Now it includes not only carrying bear spray, making noise, only using designated trails, not having food or have handled food, and being respectful (That’s Mr. Bear to you), now you have to be in a party of 3 or more. Never mind that Park Service employees carry a “long gun” when they get nervous, don’t even speak of guns.

Unsaid is that the Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife, and most other state and federal entities are very eager to delist the grizzly bear as they’ve been trying to do for a couple of years. Delisting from the endangered species act would allow much different methods of control and shift a lot of the costs and the headaches to the states.

Yellowstone, and I’m talking the greater Yellowstone region, saw a record number of grizzly deaths three years ago and one less than that record last year. The major cause of those deaths was humans in one form or another. Shot in self defense, or hit with cars, while preying on livestock, whatever. Bear deaths are almost to an unsustainable level. Too many dead bears and it will hurt their efforts to delist.

Now every single bear is important. Not biologically of course. The brown bear is one of the least threatened big animals, with one of the largest ranges in the world earning the “least concern” designation from the IUCN, it’s very lowest rating. What every single bear is important for is delisting, and three bears, as in this case, are invaluable.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 31, 2011 09:23 AM
Ed-- just a niggly correction. There have in fact been two incidences of wolves killing people in the last decade in North America. One, a young man up at a mining camp in Saskatchewan (http://www.hcn.org/issues/315/16084) and one a young teacher out for a jog in Alaska (http://articles.latimes.com/[…]/la-na-wolf-attack13-2010mar13).

Those are just the facts, though. It's important to keep these numbers in perspective. For example, in 2010, 34 people were killed by dogs. Many more were injured or maimed. If the argument is that we should kill everything that could hurt us, we should probably go after fido first. And maybe scrap our automobiles, tear up our freeways etc.
Edwin D Coleman III
Edwin D Coleman III says:
Aug 31, 2011 11:59 AM
George, Wayne -
No, my remarks weren't kind. They weren't intended to be; they were intended as a jab at ignorant, hysterical three-S folk (shoot 'em, shovel 'em & shut up).

Sarah -
Thanks for the correction. I was quoting from a conversation with a Forest Service employee without having done my own research. My own ignorance was showing. I've since found the world-wide study of wolf attacks on humans done by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) in 2002. The finding of the report was that during the 100 years of the 20th century there were between twenty and thirty attacks in North America (including Alaska and Canada, which have relatively high populations of wolves). Of these, three were fatal, all because of rabies.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 31, 2011 12:03 PM
Interesting that the more recent kills were predatory. I imagine the long gap just has to do with how few wolves there were in much of the populated areas? I imagine humans pushing farther into wolf territory has more to do with the recent incidents, though, since wolves have been doing pretty well for a while in AK and CND.
Angela Wartel
Angela Wartel says:
Aug 31, 2011 12:04 PM
Edwin, you must live in my area of Idaho, where for some reason that thinking is so prevalent. Shooting first seems to be the way to do things here. It is mindblowing
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 31, 2011 12:43 PM
As a sidenote, Robb -- think of it this way. If I were a mom, the mere presence of a grizzly bear within 300 feet of my children would make me want to defend them somehow, whether there was a real threat or not. Grizzly bears are unpredictable wild animals. Now turn to the flipside: People shoot bears a lot more often than bears attack people. Whether these particular people intended to do anything is not something a mama griz could know ... she was defending her cubs against what she perceived as a threat.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Aug 31, 2011 01:37 PM
And no conservation argument is aided when those making it pretend that predators aren't dangerous.
martin weiss
martin weiss says:
Aug 31, 2011 06:11 PM
How to travel in time: When a life is taken, all the offspring of that life are killed, too. My impression is that human society is reaching a saturation point where conserving life must prevail over taking life. Let wildlife live, if it can in this polluted land. Think of the generations to come. Man is the top predator. Unless one needs to kill to eat, we have the option of traveling across time to distant generations.
George Winters
George Winters says:
Sep 08, 2011 10:03 PM
As a slight side note, Yellowstone NP is about 1100 miles from the population center of the US. If the three million visitors drive to and from the park, more than 5 people will die from traffic accidents this year and every year just by choosing to drive to the park.

See http://www.hcn.org/[…]/the-casual-violence-of-driving. How many non-park animals will be killed just so that people can drive to the park and enjoy watching the iconic animals?

We are all part of a complex web. Without the aura of the park, the bears may have never gotten the attention to have a strategic preserve. With the park, we flock there to complicate the lives of the bears while we try to protect them. In our rapt attention, we casually ignore the hard realities of the way we live and the cumulative risks to them and us.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Oct 03, 2011 08:40 PM
I think this story just got a lot more interesting. Authorities euthanized the sow as it's DNA matched in both fatalities. Perfect for armchair game management.

Since commenting here I learned that the Park Service considers bears to be acting defensively whenever they don't consume someone. Maybe they get sick of killing healthy bears. We have shared the same places for ten thousand years or more, we probably don't always get along that well.

I guess there were multiple different bear DNA samples at the site of poor Mr. Wallace. So maybe more bears know how we taste, and maybe it was actually another bear that did the deed. Certainly can't blame an animal for being what it is. I just shrug my shoulders, big predator, what can you say.

One thing I will say is that I'd think there's another HCN story here, all the right ingredients, big scary animal, Park Service policy that might have caused a fatality, endangered species, tourism, practically writes itself. What do you say Sarah?
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman says:
Oct 04, 2011 09:57 AM
Robb--It is interesting. We are, however, in the midst of a very different grizzly story. Stay tuned!

--Sarah Gilman
High Country News Associate Editor