National Park Response to Grizzly Bear Attacks

National park grizzly bear attacks have become more frequent. After several incidents, regulations were enforced to ensure a peaceful coexistence.

  • Grizzly bears are a common sight in national parks.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/SunnyS
  • “National Parks Beyond the Nation,” edited by Adrian Howkins, Jared Orsi, and Mark Fiege, explores the historic interactions and influences of national parks across the globe.
    Cover courtesy University of Oklahoma Press

National Parks Beyond the Nation (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), edited by Adrian Howkins, Jared Orsi, and Mark Fiege, explains that the idea of national parks is an American invention of historic consequences and tells us much about the multifarious and changing ideas of nature and culture coexisting. The following excerpt is from chapter 7, “Night of the Grizzlies” which it gives a great example of just how nature works and how we as humans, respond to it.

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Night of the Grizzlies

On August 12, 1967, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons went separately into the backcountry of Glacier National Park. They were both young students working summer jobs at park concessions. It was Julie’s weekend off, and she and a companion walked into a small campground near the Granite Park Chalet. Michele hiked with some friends to a good fishing spot at Trout Lake. Both groups slept in the open, spreading their sleeping bags on the ground.

Just after midnight, a grizzly bear knocked Julie Helgeson and her friend out of their sleeping bags. Guests at the Granite Park Chalet heard their screams. Miles away at Trout Lake, Michele and her friends were repeatedly harassed by a different grizzly bear. The small group built a campfire, but the bear returned later that night. Everyone fled for the trees except Michele, who was unable to free herself from her sleeping bag. The bear hauled Michele out of sight. Both Julie and Michele died of their wounds, leaving behind devastated friends and family. Rangers shot four grizzlies in the days that followed, including the two that had killed the young women.

Public Debate Begins Over Fate of National Parks

Julie and Michele’s deaths incited uproar. These were the first fatal bear attacks ever recorded in Glacier National Park. After the news broke, hundreds of impassioned and concerned letters poured into the park offices and to the Department of the Interior. Many visitors questioned whether national parks belonged to people or to bears. Citizens wrote fervent letters on both sides of the debate. Adrian Maas from New Jersey was upset that the rangers had been so quick to shoot four grizzlies, when there were only an estimated hundred left in the park. He pleaded with the parks service to save the bears. “When our universe is sterilized,” he lamented, “we will be sterilized along with it.” Other letter writers disagreed, saying that the grizzlies left them with “a feeling of deep uneasiness” when they hiked in the park. Some tourists had avoided Glacier because of its bears. Many of these citizens wanted rangers to keep shooting until there were no grizzlies left in Glacier National Park. “Their hides could be stuffed and placed in various chalets in the park ... as mementoes of past wild life,” suggested John Franklin Donahoo of Honolulu. A former Glacier park ranger asserted in a local Montana newspaper, “There is only one thing to do with the grizzly bear in Glacier National Park and that is to get rid of him, and turn the park back to the people.”

A Canadian citizen, Carl Ellis, wrote an emotional response to this ex-ranger’s letter, claiming that parks had room for people and grizzlies. As a frequent hiker in the International Peace Park, he said he took steps to protect himself from grizzly attacks and to warn grizzlies of his presence. The bears did not deter him or detract from his experience; rather, they were central to his enjoyment of the area. “Much of the thrill and excitement of trail hiking in Glacier and Waterton springs from the fact that wild animals including Grizzly, Cougar, are perhaps somewhere in the area,” he argued. Tony Hoyt from Ithaca concurred. He had spent weeks in the Glacier backcountry, where he reveled in the knowledge that grizzlies were in those mountains. Their presence renewed his “delight in the mysteries of earth, sea and sky” and preserved his “sense of wonder.” Ellis felt that if grizzlies were to be exterminated, “the National Park Service will have betrayed the people.”

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