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Know the West

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.