How can a court say a bear is 'not natural'?

Questioning a recent court decision after a black bear killed a young boy in Utah.

 

On Father’s Day in 2007, a black bear fatally mauled an 11-year-old boy who was camping with his family in Utah’s Uinta National Forest. The family had gathered at an undeveloped, dispersed campsite 1.2 miles away from an established campground with amenities. The incident was the first documented black-bear fatality in the state.

The same bear had raided coolers and pawed at a camper’s head just the day before, and the state Department of Wildlife Resources sent wildlife officers out to track it down and remove it. But they were unsuccessful, and the next evening the bear attack occurred.

The boy’s death was a heart-wrenching tragedy, but it is making news six years later because the family sued both the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. They claimed that state authorities had already identified the bear as a problem but did not give them ample warning that there was an aggressive bear in the area. No warnings were posted and the road to the undeveloped campsite remained open. A ruling on their suit against the Forest Service awarded them nearly $2 million.

A Utah district court, however, dismissed the family’s suit against the state last fall, decreeing that a black bear, an animal native to Utah’s Wasatch Range, is a natural condition on the land and the state cannot assume responsibility for the bear’s aggression.

The family appealed and the case slowly made its way to the state’s Supreme Court. This July 19, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the state had, in fact, a duty to protect the boy from the bear and that a bear is not a “natural condition” on public lands.

The Supreme Court’s decision bumps the case down to the district court, where a trial will now occur to determine if the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources is at fault for the boy’s death. Utah’s wildlife agency has yet to issue a statement about the new ruling.

To be a “natural condition,” the Supreme Court said, something must “have a close tie to land itself” and “persist on the land,” and not be transitory or temporary.  According to the Utah Supreme Court, the transient nature of animals, as they move from one place to another, takes wildlife out of the expected, natural condition of public lands. The court decreed that natural conditions of the land are limited to things that are “topographical in nature” or directly connected to topography, like ravines, rocks and resulting rockslides, and snowpack and resulting avalanches.

For inexplicable reasons, the court’s definition fails to include wildlife. Utah is a state with an extensive mosaic of urban-wilderness lands. Most of Utah’s population is jammed into the Wasatch Front, with cities pushing against the mountains that curtail their growth to the east. Residents flock to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, making it one of the most heavily used parcels of public land in the nation.

Though it is wonderful to see people embrace their public lands, it is odd and bizarre for the state’s Supreme Court to decide that wildlife is not natural and therefore not welcome. The national forests that surround the Salt Lake Valley are inevitably going to host human-wildlife interactions, with some of those interactions joyful and Kodak-moment-worthy, and some of them violent.

The court’s decision signifies more than the state’s absolute duty to protect visitors from aggressive wildlife. It also signifies that we are one step further away from understanding the complicated dance that arises from living so close to wilderness. I fear the day when all visitors will expect the state to protect them from everything uncomfortable -- from bee stings and sunburn to sprained ankles.

Perhaps there is some comfort in the words of Justice Jill Parrish, who authored the dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s ruling. She writes: “Long before the borders of Utah were drawn, the land, in its natural condition, contained large and small indigenous wildlife in addition to its topographical features. And today, conservation efforts aimed at preserving the natural condition of Utah’s public lands include support for and rehabilitation of native species. To read ‘natural condition’ in the limited context of topographical features ignores an entire segment of the unique natural conditions of Utah’s public lands.”

At least she understands that the natural condition of public lands includes wild animals, and that it is up to us to both respect and expect their presence.

Casey O’Malley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a writer and teacher in Salt Lake City.

Dave Brennan
Dave Brennan Subscriber
Aug 29, 2013 10:39 AM
The Utah Supreme Court's same logic could conceivably be applied to extreme weather events, flash floods, and avalanches. Let's consider extreme heat during mid-summer in the southern Utah canyon country, which kills people from time to time. Such weather does not meet the court's criteria of "natural", since it lacks a “... a close tie to land itself” does not “persist on the land”, and is transitory or temporary. Does the transitory nature of extreme heat events remove it from the expected, natural condition of public lands? Weather would not appear to meet the court's opinion that natural conditions of the land are limited to things that are “topographical in nature” or directly connected to topography, like ravines, rocks and resulting rockslides, and snowpack and resulting avalanches. In the case of the bear mauling, I could see an argument for failure to warn, if the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and U.S. Forest Service knew about recent history of bear-human incidents in this area, and failed to warn the public. Holding the state liable because a bear is not "natural", however, stretches logic and common sense to the extreme.
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Aug 29, 2013 07:50 PM
My gosh, I hope the state appeals. The judge can't reasonably expect the USFS or any agency to protect all people all the time on public lands, any more than law enforcement can be liable to prevent all crimes all the time. Sometimes uncontrollable things happen; that's nearly the definition of a natural environment. The case sets up a dangerous and unenforceable expectation that's guaranteed to wind up in a higher court someday. I hope nature wins that one.

A law should not be necessary to avoid such lawsuits, but I hope Utah follows suit (so to speak) with something like Wyoming's law: http://www.yellowstonegate.com/[…]/
Sarrah Cheatham
Sarrah Cheatham
Sep 05, 2013 06:39 PM
tragic enough before this nonsense. I understand the family is grieving, but the onus is not on the state nor USFS. Sad that a fight regarding a profit from this boy's ever happens.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Sep 05, 2013 08:34 PM
Has the court system in this state loss touch with reality,if bears and animals aren't natural,than I am one confused person. If you want to decide the case on the family should of been warned in the campground,O'kay but the natural part they got so wrong its scary.