“The good of the one is outweighed by the good of the many.”
That’s one of my favorite quotations ever because it applies to so many issues. It comes from The Wrath of Khan, my favorite Star Trek movie (yep, still a Trekkie, even at my age), and so brilliantly offered by none other than Mr. Spock.
But what does it have to do with bears? A lot, it seems.
As I started to write this column, rangers in Glacier National Park were hiking around one of my favorite parts of Glacier, the highlands above Two Medicine Lake in the shadow of mighty Rising Wolf Mountain, trying to find and kill a mother grizzly and capture her two cubs. This female bear, dubbed the Old Man Bear because she hung out around Oldman Lake, had been scaring the stuffing out of hikers for at least a decade, getting bolder and bolder, and anybody in the bear management biz knows there is no such thing as an old bold bear.
Rangers even tried aversive conditioning (i.e. chased her with Karelian bear dogs, shot her with rubber bullets, and other non-lethal stimuli), but that didn’t cure her of her chronic bad behavior. She came back bolder than ever.
Some people oppose such “management actions,” but I hope they can re-think their criticism because sometimes we need to kill bears, not just to save people, but to save bears, too. I understand why people don’t like the idea of killing bears, but then, who does? You think rangers enjoy shooting a mother bear with cubs? Every ranger I ever met reveres bears.
For me, the tough part of this deal is removing cubs from the wild and condemning them to captivity. I personally would prefer the rangers shoot them, too, to save them from a lifetime of exile in a big city zoo. But there is no chance rangers will do that, so say goodbye to three members of Glacier’s grizzly population.
Anybody protesting Glacier’s decision hasn’t studied the tenuous relationship between bears and man. The vast majority of bear incidents, including most fatalities, can be attributed to a bear that has become too “conditioned” or “habituated” to the presence of humankind, often by getting food rewards from us. The Old Man Bear had been walking through occupied campsites, sniffing backpackers’ dinners, following hikers up the trail like a lost dog. This bear was clearly a time bomb waiting to explode.
Bureaucracy is slow to change, but this is a good example of how it finally comes around. You could easily speculate that if rangers would have killed those two female bears back in July 1967 before they killed and consumed two young women, well, we wouldn’t have had the Night of the Grizzlies, and two women who didn’t need to die might be joyfully playing with their grandchildren today.
(More on Night of the Grizzlies next week.)
Ditto for the equally tragic incident on September 23, 1976 when another young woman tent camping with her four companions in Glacier’s Swiftcurrent vehicle campground died a horrible death. One of two grizzlies that had displayed obviously dangerous behavior for weeks prior to the incident ripped into a tent and dragged away a University of Montana student, killing and partially consuming her. At a time, even after August 13, 1967, the night that changed everything for bear managers, the National Park Service was still too gunshy about taking out a problem bear before it became a killer bear.
But no more, and we should all applaud the newfound resolve even in the face of criticism from people who don’t really understand the gravity of the situation.
As I was about half-done with this commentary, I received press release from the Glacier press office saying rangers shot the mother grizzly and captured one of her two cubs. The other cub died during the process of darting and transplanting. Rangers tried to resuscitate the cub by performing mouth to nose CPR, but to no avail.
You have to admire them for doing all they could to save the cub, but as I already noted, I’m not too disappointed they failed. Now, we have only one grizzly given a life sentence without parole of gawking tourists for entertainment and horse pellets for dinner.
“Unfortunately, this entire family group of grizzly bears had become overly familiar with humans.” Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright explained in the press release. “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; and therefore, needed to be removed from the park.”
Incidentally, rangers shot the mother grizzly as they observed her heading for a group of backpackers camping at Oldman Lake–and, of course, young grizzlies learn most of what they need to know from their mother before striking out on their own.
Cartwright also noted that Glacier has an “internationally-vetted” Bear Management Plan and Guidelines specifying that conditioned bears that display over-familiarity must be removed from the wild population. I’ve actually read this plan, and it’s excellent.
If this plan would’ve been in place in 1967 and 1976, perhaps three people (or more) might still be alive.
No zoos, incidentally, will take adult grizzlies. To that, I say, whew!
Concerning the cub that didn’t survive, I say, it’s for the best.
Concerning the cub that did survive and is on its way to the Bronx Zoo, I say, please forgive us. Hopefully, the essence of wildness is not too deeply imprinted on this little brain.
Killing problem bears before they become killer bears protects all bears. Right now, the only reason grizzly bears exist on earth is because we allow it. How remarkably easy it would be for us to remove the great bear from the wild.
We tolerate grizzly bears because there are so few of them in so few places and because, most important, there are so few maulings. Even though many thousands of people hike the trails of Glacier every year, and many of them come within the “defensive perimeter” of a grizzly bear, usually without even knowing it, there are so few incidents. I attribute this partly to excellent management, albeit a bit slow in coming, but mostly to the incredible intelligence and stealth of the creature that so expertly avoids encounters without giving up its spot on top of the food chain, the king of the mountains, the majestic grizzly bear.
The last thing we want is more bloody incidents, which leads to less social tolerance for the entire species. When we see a problem, we must deal with it, precisely the way we just did.