Viewpoint: Don’t kill bears for acting like bears

2011-10-05T20:09:00Z Viewpoint: Don’t kill bears for acting like bearsBy Brennan Jorgensen Ravalli Republic
October 05, 2011 8:09 pm  • 

Finding a man's mangled body the day after he was killed by a grizzly bear is a gruesome sight. And certainly, it is a tragedy, but so is tracking down and killing a wild animal in his own territory that may have been acting exactly as nature intended.

After spending more than $24 million dollars over the past 26 years to recover grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone area, park officials are spending ridiculous amounts to find and kill one bear - a bear whose guilt cannot even be proven.

Seven grizzly bears have been rounded up for DNA testing to determine which bear killed a Yellowstone National Park hiker in early August, but so far none have been linked to the attack. Nor is there clear evidence as to what prompted the bear to attack.

History shows these actions are typical of national park management - spending millions in the name of science, when in fact decisions are political responses to public fears.

John Wallace, 59, from Michigan, was found on the Mary Mountain Trail in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) on Aug. 5. Alongside evidence of bear activity near his body, his autopsy revealed he was killed by a grizzly bear. Although an experienced hiker, Wallace was alone and not carrying bear spray.

The trailhead for Mary Mountain is clearly marked by signs stating, "Danger You Are Entering Bear Country," and, "Warning Bear Frequenting Area." As well as recommendations to carry bear spray and to remain still if a bear charges.

Not surprisingly, the likelihood of a grizzly encounter has risen as their numbers have hit record highs. According to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team there are more than 600 grizzly bears in and around YNP, three times as many bears as there were in 1975.

The increase in bear numbers has resulted in a higher frequency of bear-human interactions. Mistakes will continue to be made. Unfortunately, these encounters can sometimes result in a natural, predatory response from the wild animal.

Like many bear related attacks, the response to Wallace's death is to hunt down and kill the offending animal. "If we can positively link a bear to this incident, we will kill the bear," Al Nash, YNP spokesman said.

In July, another grizzly attack resulted in the death of Brian Matayoshi, who reportedly ran screaming with his wife from a sow acting to protect her two cubs. Park officials considered this normal bear behavior and did not pursue the animal. In Wallace's case, public alarm and bad PR for the park guaranteed a hunt for the offending animal.

From a conservation standpoint, a good national park is a place where the ecosystem is allowed to follow its natural course without human interference. And yet, we spend millions on recovering the endangered grizzly bear and as soon as their numbers are bolstered and they begin to act like bears, public pressure calls for their destruction.

Yellowstone is not a zoo or Disneyland, but a wilderness. It does not offer wild tea cup rides, but rather wild animals. Visitors should be properly prepared and respectful. Read the signs, hike in groups, and bring bear spray.

Animals can be counted on to act in their own best interest. Whether that means protecting their territory or defending their offspring, grizzly bears will inevitably act like bears in their habitat.

YNP Superintendent Dan Wenk even admitted, "We'll never know which bears caused the fatality."

And yet, the search, and high price of pursuit continues, if only to appease public pressures.

Punishing animals for acting instinctually in their home not only seems morally wrong but is expensive. Instead of regulating nature, could the funds be better allocated for the conservation and management of the park? Or perhaps even used preemptively for visitor education? The cost should end with the loss of life and not further drain the shallow coffers of the National Park.

Brennan Jorgensen is a research assistant at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman.

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