National Park Response to Grizzly Bear Attacks

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Grizzly bears are a common sight in national parks.
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“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.

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.”

North of the border in Waterton Lakes National Park, Canadian staff kept a close eye on the American reaction. The Superintendent of Waterton Lakes wrote that although his park had few problems with bears that summer, “the general public has become much more concerned over bears because of the two grizzly incidents.” He requested more information from the U.S. park service on the maulings, and he reported to his superiors that out of the first 121 letters received at Glacier National Park, only 14 percent favored the extirpation of grizzlies from the area. Glacier was also careful to keep Waterton informed. When Glacier staff completed a report on the attacks the following spring, the superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park was the first name listed as having received a copy.

National Park Enforces Old Regulations

After the fatal maulings of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, both parks made intensive efforts to curtail human interactions with bears. It does not appear that anyone with authority seriously considered exterminating bears, and Canadian and American park policies remained aligned. Shortly after the incident, Glacier National Park released a somber twelve-page booklet in which the first sentence read, “Bears are wild, dangerous animals.” In 1968 the Waterton superintendent sent his Glacier counterpart a strikingly similar pamphlet titled “Bear Facts.” He attached the note, “If the pamphlet seems vaguely familiar remember that while plagiarism may be a dirty word among authors, imitation is a compliment among Superintendents.”

Both pamphlets contained dire warnings for visitors, but also welcomed them. The first page of the American brochure ended with the statement, “We want you to enjoy the National Parks, too.” The similar Canadian publication declared, “Obviously, man has a place in this wilderness too.” Both national parks chose the same path: to balance the interests of recreational users with those of bears. It was in keeping with both systems’ mandates. The Canadian and American National Parks Acts contained, and still contain, the almost identically worded sentiment that protected areas “shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Still, keeping people and grizzlies in peaceful coexistence has never been an easy task. Neither bears nor people could ever be fully controlled.

In large part, the “new” bear policy consisted of better implementing existing regulations. A few years before the Night of the Grizzlies, after some nonfatal but gruesome attacks, and amid questions about the legal responsibility of national parks, Glacier National Park had created a bear management plan. The plan included strategies for bear-proof garbage disposal and the education of concessionaire and hotel staff, as well as provisions for trail closures where bears were known to be behaving aggressively. Yet these regulations were not universally followed. The grizzly that killed Michele Koons had frightened other campers in weeks preceding her death. One woman who wrote a letter to the National Park Service in August 1967 included a postcard of begging black bears that she claimed was sold at concessions throughout many western national parks. She also pointed out correctly that Julie Helgeson had died minutes from the Glacier Park Chalet, where there was a table-scrap pile frequented by six grizzlies.

The 1967 attacks spurred Glacier into action. In May 1968 the superintendent of Waterton was greatly impressed by a public education event he attended in Montana. After the deaths, he said, the American park was “making a special effort to warn visitors of the dangers.” He continued:

“The bear program [at Glacier] is based upon research, education and enforcement. They are going to be quite tough about laying charges for feeding animals, leaving dirty campsites, etc. They are going to close off trails or areas any time there seems to be justification because of bear incidents. I believe we should also be making a more positive effort … While this effort is perhaps required in all our parks it is most important here because of our connection with Glacier.”

National Park Implements New Regulations

After the deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, Glacier National Park cleaned up most outstanding garbage problems and closed trails when bears were present. The new measures helped decrease aggressive encounters between bears and humans, but occasional maulings continued to occur. In 1976 a young woman was dragged from her tent in the Many Glacier Campground. The following year, a five-year-old girl was killed in Waterton Lakes. Both a black bear and a grizzly bear were destroyed following her death. It was the small park’s first and (as of 2015) only bear-induced fatality, although there have been other attacks that resulted in very serious injuries.

The parks also struggled to create better reporting and tracking systems for bear-human encounters. In 1984 Waterton Lakes issued a bear management plan that contained an organizational chart listing who should be notified of bear incidents and in what order. Oddly, Glacier National Park appeared nowhere in the chart. However, the same document later noted, “All bear observations and recording will be done in collaboration with Glacier National Park, USA. It is important that we maintain good liaisons with Glacier National Park officials as our bear populations do not recognize man-made territorial boundaries.” Canadian and American staff also kept records of bear sightings on a common computerized form that was in use across several American national parks. Effective management demanded cooperation, even if some of it happened outside the bounds of formal working agreements.

The gruesome nature of grizzly bear attacks understandably continued to hold a special terror for many potential visitors, most of whom did not encounter wild animals in their daily lives. In 1977 Glacier officials compiled a list of known deaths in their park to underscore the rarity of bear attacks. “You may be interested in a record of how grizzly fatalities compare to other fatal accidents in Glacier since 1913,” wrote the chief park ranger to two concerned citizens. “Drownings 36; heart attack 19; vehicle 17, hiking falls 16, climbing falls 11, avalanches 7, falling rocks 6, exposure 4, grizzlies 3.” When humans and grizzlies encountered each other in the Peace Park, bears were in far more danger of dying. Indeed, the letters that had poured in after the 1967 bear attacks had raised two related issues: the need to keep people safe from bears, and the need to keep bears safe from people. As park administrators and legislators wrestled with how to protect the grizzly bear population from humans, they realized how little they actually knew about these bears, their numbers, and their habits. Grizzly bears became both a social and scientific issue.

Reprinted with permission from National Parks Beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on “America’s Best Idea”, edited by Adrian Howkins, Jared Orsi, and Mark Fiege, and published by the Oklahoma University Press, 2016.

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