What led bears to kill two hu­mans 50 years ago

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KARIN BRUL­LIARD karin.brul­liard@wash­post.com

Pa­trol ranger Bert Gil­dart was driv­ing down the high­est pass in Glacier National Park just af­ter mid­night on Aug. 13, 1967, when a woman’s voice sud­denly crack­led over his two-way ra­dio. It was another ranger, and she had a hor­ri­fy­ing mes­sage: A griz­zly bear had mauled some­one at the pop­u­lar Gran­ite Park guest chalet.

Gil­dart called for help, set­ting in mo­tion an ur­gent med­i­cal mis­sion. Hours later, as he slept in his apart­ment at park head­quar­ters, a col­league knocked on his door.

“He said: ‘Bert, you’ve got to get up. There’s been a griz­zly bear maul­ing,’ ” re­called Gil­dart, now 77. “I said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘No: There’s been another one.’ ”

The in­for­ma­tion, Gil­dart says to­day, was “mind-bog­gling,” and for good rea­son. The park, nearly 1,600 square miles of stun­ning peaks and val­leys in north­west Mon­tana, had recorded no griz­zly-caused hu­man fa­tal­i­ties since it was estab­lished in 1910. Then, on one night, two bears in spots sev­eral miles apart killed two campers. Both vic­tims were 19-year-old women.

Those at­tacks, which took place 50 years ago this sum­mer, set off an im­me­di­ate quest at Glacier to un­der­stand how a tragedy of such in­fin­i­tes­i­mal odds could have hap­pened. But they also marked a turn­ing point in re­la­tions be­tween North Amer­i­cans and the con­ti­nent’s largest preda­tors, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing how public agen­cies deal with bears and in­spir­ing new paths of re­search on griz­zly be­hav­ior. The im­pact of the deaths still echoed in fed­eral of­fi­cials’ re­cent de­ci­sion to re­move Yel­low­stone-area griz­zlies from the en­dan­gered species list.

“We’ve cer­tainly had our share of other types of fa­tal­i­ties, but none of them seemed to live like that par­tic­u­lar event does,” said John Waller, Glacier’s bear bi­ol­o­gist. “It was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for bear man­age­ment, not just in Glacier but the whole National Park Ser­vice. It fun­da­men­tally changed how we view our re­la­tion­ship with bears.”

The­o­ries about the at­tacks’ cause swirled in the af­ter­math. Per­haps light­ning and dry con­di­tions, which sparked wild­fires that week, had pos­sessed one bear to drag Julie Helge­son from the Gran­ite Park camp­ground where she slept and a sec­ond to man­gle Michele Koons at the Trout Lake site where she camped with four friends.

The women’s men­strual cy­cles and the pos­si­bil­ity that some­one had given the bears LSD were also sug­gested trig­gers.

But soon it be­came clear that the prob­lem was far more mun­dane: hu­man food and garbage.

Glacier, a park that had recorded just 110,000 vis­i­tors be­tween 1910 and 1920, was in the late 1960s wel­com­ing nearly 1 mil­lion peo­ple a year, and more of them were head­ing into the back­coun­try. Gran­ite Park Chalet, a moun­tain­top site reach­able by trail, had so many vis­i­tors in 1967 that its in­cin­er­a­tor could not con­tain all their trash, and man­agers dis­carded the ex­cess in a gully be­hind the fa­cil­ity. Soon the griz­zly bears’ nightly for­ag­ing there be­came a tourist at­trac­tion.

Many park staffers were un­com­fort­able with this sit­u­a­tion, as re­counted in Jack Olsen’s 1969 book, “Night of the Griz­zlies.” Among them were Gil­dart and his friend, wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Dave Shea.

They had wit­nessed five bears dine on trash at the chalet days be­fore, and both had ex­pressed con­cern at park head­quar­ters.

“It was ba­si­cally an in­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen,” said Shea, 77, who worked at Glacier for 36 years.

In the Trout Lake area, mean­while, one griz­zly had spent that hot sum­mer rum­mag­ing through garbage bar­rels near a col­lec­tion of cab­ins, men­ac­ing hik­ers and raid­ing back­coun­try camp­sites. Al­though back­pack­ing was be­com­ing more pop­u­lar, there “was no wilder­ness ethic,” Waller said: Campers would sim­ply leave be­hind their trash, pro­vid­ing nour­ish­ment to bears smart enough to as­so­ciate it with peo­ple.

De­spite re­ports about the bear’s be­hav­ior, park of­fi­cials took no ac­tion. It wasn’t that they didn’t know bears and hu­man food were a dan­ger­ous mix, Waller said; en­force­ment just wasn’t a pri­or­ity.

Now we know that bear-caused in­juries at national parks in the West were quite high at the time, but then, he said, “it all got swept un­der the car­pet.”

The Glacier maul­ings also in­spired a gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists. Stephen Her­rero had just fin­ished his doc­tor­ate in an­i­mal be­hav­ior in 1967 when he heard the news — and couldn’t stop think­ing about it.

“Here was an ideal and im­por­tant topic to try to un­der­stand — what went on in the minds and bod­ies of bears,” said Her­rero, who be­came a lead­ing author­ity on bear at­tacks and be­hav­ior at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary.

“The big prob­lem with the bears at Glacier was too many of them had learned to tol­er­ate peo­ple more and more, and ig­nore peo­ple more and more, and then fi­nally go af­ter peo­ple them­selves,” Her­rero said.

The im­me­di­ate re­sponse, how­ever, was to find bears in the ar­eas of the at­tacks and kill them. Within two days, rangers had fa­tally shot three at the chalet. Shea was among those who fired at the third, a sow with two cubs and a ripped paw pad that would have been painful, pos­si­bly in­creas­ing its ag­gres­sion. In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that this bear had likely killed Helge­son and se­ri­ously in­jured her boyfriend.

Gil­dart was de­ployed to track down the Trout Lake bear. He shot it two days af­ter the at­tacks — an ema­ci­ated fe­male that had glass from garbage em­bed­ded be­tween its teeth and a mass of hu­man hair in its stom­ach. Soon af­ter, Gil­dart helped col­lect sev­eral gi­ant burlap sacks of trash near the lake.

News of the maul­ings, splashed across news­pa­pers na­tion­wide, was a public re­la­tions cri­sis for the In­te­rior Depart­ment.

A few crit­ics called on au­thor­i­ties to fin­ish off the ex­tir­pa­tion of griz­zly bears that had be­gun as early set­tlers pushed West and left them in only a few patches of the United States, in­clud­ing Glacier.

“Some peo­ple said we ought to go in there and hunt them all out. And that first year, that’s kind of the way I felt,” Gil­dart said. But he changed his mind: “We learned all these bears be­ing seen on a reg­u­lar ba­sis were con­di­tioned to food — and had lost their fear of peo­ple.”

That un­der­stand­ing trig­gered ma­jor changes in Glacier and else­where. A strict “pack in, pack out” pol­icy was estab­lished for back­coun­try sites, which were also given des­ig­nated cook­ing ar­eas that were sep­a­rate from sleep­ing ar­eas. Ca­bles or hooks for hang­ing food out of bears’ reach were put in place. Campers were re­quired to re­serve spots, which lim­ited their num­bers.

In a con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion, Yel­low­stone National Park man­agers in 1968 abruptly closed sev­eral dumps where bears had long been eat­ing — a move re­searchers (and brothers) Frank and John Craig­head warned would cause the bears to seek food in camp­grounds or pop­u­lated ar­eas out­side the park, lead­ing to more con­flicts and bear deaths. Many re­searchers say they were right: Within a few years, dozens of Yel­low­stone-area griz­zlies were killed or sent to zoos, con­tribut­ing to a pop­u­la­tion drop that led to their in­clu­sion in 1975 on the en­dan­gered species list. This spring, fed­eral of­fi­cials said Yel­low­stone griz­zlies had fi­nally re­cov­ered enough to be delisted.

Strate­gies for what to do about “prob­lem bears” — the kind that seek hu­man food — have evolved. In the early 1980s, Glacier said it would shoot or move more of them. Later, trap­ping and re­lo­cat­ing pre­vailed, un­til stud­ies re­vealed that the an­i­mals usu­ally re­turned to where they were caught.

Now the pre­ferred method is haz­ing, or us­ing things such as rub­ber bul­lets and loud cracker shells, “to teach that bear no,” Waller said.

But the big idea is con­flict preven­tion, he said. These days, Glacier reg­u­larly closes trails so griz­zlies can ac­cess berry patches or car­casses with­out run­ning into peo­ple. And all those bear-proof garbage cans in national parks and else­where bears live? They’re pro­duced by an in­dus­try that grew out of the Glacier at­tacks, Her­rero said.

“Tremen­dous progress has been made to keep bears away from these at­trac­tants,” he said. “It’s re­ally been quite suc­cess­ful — not only sav­ing peo­ple’s lives, but also sav­ing bears’ lives.”

There are no guar­an­tees, of course, but park of­fi­cials stress that the threat from bears is very low. Griz­zlies have killed eight peo­ple in Glacier since 1967, most re­cently in 1998, and most were food-con­di­tioned bears. Bears, both black and griz­zly, have in­jured about 100 peo­ple in the park’s his­tory, usu­ally fol­low­ing a “sur­prise en­counter,” Waller said.

In 1980, Gil­dart was as­signed to pa­trol Glacier’s back­coun­try on horse­back, mak­ing sure peo­ple and bears re­mained sep­a­rated. He gave tick­ets to campers who left trash and posted warn­ing signs when he spot­ted bear tracks or scat, and he of­ten en­coun­tered bears. They did what bears that don’t eat hu­man food typ­i­cally do. “They’ve all run,” he said. But nei­ther he nor Shea go to Glacier any­more. It’s too crowded. The park ex­pects to log 3 mil­lion vis­i­tors this year, many of whom act as though they’re “walk­ing in a zoo,” said Shea, who fears the po­ten­tial for tragedy is ris­ing. “The bears aren’t quite as wild as they used to be, be­cause they’re hear­ing peo­ple and peo­ple noises all the time.”

The hordes in­evitably mean that it is harder to keep bears and peo­ple apart, of­ten be­cause the peo­ple don’t heed park ad­vice.

Waller said rangers reg­u­larly find piles of blue­ber­ries and cans of cat food while on pa­trol — signs of at­tempts to lure preda­tors that can weigh 700 pounds.

“It as­tounds me to see griz­zly bears along a trail and peo­ple ap­proach­ing within 20 or 30 feet to get pic­tures,” Waller said. “Re­ally, bears are very, very good to us. They’re very tol­er­ant, be­cause de­spite our best ef­forts, peo­ple do amaz­ingly stupid things ev­ery year.”


Fifty years ago, two fa­tal bear at­tacks in Mon­tana’s Glacier National Park, in­clud­ing one at Gran­ite Park Chalet, pic­tured here, in­spired re­search on bears.

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