Rethinking recreation in grizzly country
In far north-central Glacier National Park (GNP), on the U.S.-Canadian border, is a spot called Goat Haunt. It’s a remote area on the U.S. side, accessed by most people via a ferry across Upper Waterton Lake from Canada. Several years ago I was walking from there toward the Kootenai Lakes mid-morning, along a narrow trail through boggy, willow-crammed country. Having forgotten our bear spray, my hiking partner and I sang especially loudly and often yelled, “Bears beware!” Our off-key renditions of Broadway show tunes didn’t bother other hikers because there were none, but it completely destroyed the serenity of the place and the normally hypnotic rhythm of our walking.
Whether due to that state of hyperawareness, or because the signs were so obvious, I started noticing things that made me uneasy—scratch marks roughly six to eight feet off the ground on several trees we passed, some aging reddish-black scat and a few faint, five-toed tracks. Not far off the trail, some matted vegetation also suggested a large animal had bedded down there recently.
After about an hour of walking, we decided it was unwise to follow in the footsteps of what was likely a grizzly bear. We turned around and started double-timing it back toward Goat Haunt. That’s when I caught a flash of brown fur in the distance, attached to something huge plowing through the brush about 50 feet off of the trail. As the sun glanced off of its back, and the sound of breaking branches crackled in the distance, my heart lodged itself somewhere up around my tonsils.
We didn’t stop that day to find out if it was a black bear, a grizzly or a moose in the thicket. We continued walking up the trail, at as controlled a pace as possible, shouting loudly enough to warn anything in a three-mile radius that we were not its preferred prey. A little while later, we reemerged at the shore of Waterton Lake safe but still spooked.
This time of year, as hungry, disoriented bears start emerging from their winter dens, I think of that day. I’d seen black bears in Boulder, a cinnamon bear in Yellowstone, a grizzly with cubs in Denali, and even a polar bear while transecting a glacier near the North Pole, but I’d never before felt bodily threatened. If it was a bruin that day in GNP and it had charged us on the one day our bear spray was in the car, the story would have ended differently.
These warm March days led the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to issue a warning this past weekend that bears may emerge from their winter dens earlier than usual. That warning was echoed from the northwestern corner of Montana down through Wyoming, where reports of grizzly sightings east of Yellowstone have been coming in for the past two weeks. Without enough natural forage yet available, bears gravitate toward dumpsters and birdfeeders, barbecues and chicken coops, increasing the possibilities for bear-human conflict.
These warnings coincide with the recent release of a Board of Review’s final report on two fatal bear attacks last summer in Yellowstone National Park (YNP). The board, which includes federal- and state-level bear experts, took the winter to analyze the events and the investigations that followed. The report includes detailed accounts of the two horrific killings and its writers speculate about how the incidents might have been prevented.
Brian Matayoshi and his wife, Marylyn, had driven from California last July, on their fourth trip to YNP. They had walked about a mile along the Wapiti Lake trail when they stopped to watch a female grizzly with two cubs feeding several hundred yards away in a meadow. A photo Marylyn took of the trio showed only rock-like specks in the distance. The couple continued for about a half-mile further toward their destination when, pestered by mosquitoes, they turned around. That put them on a collision course with the mother grizzly who had progressed closer to the trail and, upon spotting the Matayoshis from about 100 yards away, charged them.
The Matayoshis then did, according to the report, the exact wrong thing: they ran. The sow easily overtook Brian and its blows killed him nearly instantly. Marylyn laid face down and still next to a fallen tree and, although the adult grizzly approached her and picked her up by her daypack, it promptly dropped her and walked away. The report notes that the area where Brian was killed is popular for wildlife and that “the trails in this area receive intensive human use.” It says that, on the signboard at the trailhead, in addition to a warning that bear were frequenting that area, there was information posted on how to react to bear encounters. “If a bear charges, stand still, do not run,” it says. And “bear pepper spray is a good last defense.” The Matayoshis had no bear spray.
The report made clear that John Wallace, the park’s second fatality last summer, had also made mistakes. “Mr. Wallace was hiking alone, without bear spray, in an area of very high grizzly bear density. A sign posted at the trailhead warned hikers that they were entering bear country, encouraged use of bear spray, and discouraged hiking alone,” it says.
According to his personal effects, Wallace was an otherwise well-prepared hiker who’d walked about five miles along a trail in the northern Hayden Valley and stopped to rest on a log about 14 feet off the trail to have an energy bar. He’d only eaten half of it when the bear must have approached him. In an effort, perhaps, to put some distance between himself and the bear, Wallace appeared to have moved back toward the trail when he was struck down. Strewn behind him was the detritus of his day—hat, bandana and whistle. Piled atop or nearby his lifeless body, in a manner typical of a food-caching bear, were his lunch bag, rain-jacket, orange backpack and some dirt and debris. He died roughly eight miles from where Matayoshi was killed. The report mentions that Wallace had been given bear-awareness literature and a standard safety talk when he checked into his campground. “He made a statement to campground personnel that he did not need to hear that information and that he was a ‘grizzly bear expert’,” says the report.
On the one hand, I appreciate the report pointing out what these stricken visitors to grizzly country could have done to increase their odds of avoiding, or at least deescalating, a grizzly encounter. It is a reminder to all of us—especially people like me who have made the exact same mistakes—to take care. Bear spray is particularly effective, according to a study released last week, which looked at whether or not firearms trump pepper spray in a bear encounter (they don’t). While guns need to be deployed in a split second with lethal accuracy, bear spray is easier to use and effective despite a lack of precise aim. The same bear expert who conducted this study found in 2008 that pepper spray effectively stopped aggressive bear encounters 92 percent of the time.
What the Yellowstone report leaves me wondering is why, if visitors to YNP are bombarded with warnings—at the park entrance, in campgrounds and at trailheads—did two people end up dead?
At its winter meeting in Missoula, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly recovery coordinator told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee that, while bear-aware messages were being given, they were not being received. “The problem with communication is the illusion it's actually happening,” said Chris Servheen. “My candid opinion is we have not been very successful at this at all. Perhaps we need to go to a marketing firm on Madison Avenue - they're really good at getting us to buy things we don't need or want.”
Human fatalities from grizzlies are exceedingly rare; their hadn’t been one in YNP since 1986, but encounters in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which includes portions of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, are not. In its 2010 annual report, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) noted that there were 295 grizzly bear-human conflicts reported in the GYE that year. That was a huge leap from an average of 143 conflicts per year from 1992 through 2009.
Management of human-habituated bears in the GYE also required considerable effort on the part of park employees, said the IGBST. In Grand Teton National Park, there were 115 reported traffic jams caused by grizzly viewing. In YNP, there were 435. Over 4.5 million people entered YNP in 2010, including 3.6 million people who were considered “recreational visitors” (who actually got out of their cars in the park). If the chances of being injured by a bear in YNP are about 1 in 1.9 million, that puts two visitors per year at risk.
The stage is being set for more conflicts, and possibly more fatalities, as several factors converge within grizzly ecosystems: an increasing number of people in the bears’ crosshairs, combined with a steady rise in grizzly numbers (with the exception of the GYE population, which dropped slightly last year), a fragmentation of migration corridors and an expansion of range. Top all of that with climate change, and more aggressive management strategies may be necessary.
According to the IGBST, the frequency of grizzly-human conflicts is directly linked to the availability of natural bear foods. Climate change disrupts bear foraging patterns and limits access to critically-important food supplies including white bark pine seeds, army cutworm moths, spawning cutthroat trout, the berry crop and winter-killed undulate carcasses. It was this increasing food insecurity, in part, that led the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in November 2011, to uphold a 2009 court victory restoring Endangered Species Act protections for the grizzly.
What can wildlife managers do to influence visitors to avoid bear danger? Should more trails with “high grizzly density” be off-limits to the public? Presumably visitors to YNP and beyond want to protect grizzlies and, since over 80 percent of all documented bear mortality is human-caused, steering clear of heavy bear territory, or taking the effective safety precautions, could be reasonable concessions.
Along the Mary Mountain trail, where John Wallace was killed, were two bison carcasses; one just 330 meters from the fatality site had 16 bear beds surrounding it and another, one-and-a-half miles further up the trail, had nine different grizzlies visit it three days before Wallace died. Where the Matayoshis met tragedy had been frequented over several weeks by the adult female grizzly that killed Brian. “It had been photographed several times and had likely encountered many parties of hikers during this time,” says the Board of Review report. Should the trails have been restricted until the bears had moved on?
If outright closures are unacceptable, YNP might consider the Parks Canada approach to mitigating bear-human conflict in seasonally-important grizzly habitat in Banff National Park. Special permits are required for hiking in certain areas, along with a minimum of four hikers per party. At least one member of the group must carry bear spray and keep it accessible at all times. Violators could pay a $25,000 fine. The parks might help by dedicating space on their website to “trail-pooling” for solo or pairs of hikers to form groups.
I haven’t been back to Goat Haunt since I was lucky enough to hike in the grizzlies’ backyard without incident, but I’m revisited by that moment of rustling, that glimpse of wild, when I read about Wallace and Matayoshi’s final moments. The fear still electrifies the surface of my skin when I imagine being noticed, or pursued, by a powerful predator. Knowing what I do now, I would accept being turned away at a trailhead popular with bears, or for lack of bear spray. Some of us have to be saved from ourselves.