One of the interesting aspects of the recent hiker/bear deaths has been how Yellowstone has tried to manage the situation on its Facebook page. I don’t believe the park had a Facebook page in 2011, the last time they killed a bear for eating a human. If they did, I haven’t been able to access it to compare. I’ve spent hours looking through the comments, including over a hundred from NPS.
Originally, NPS kept reposting the same canned reply to comments but eventually moved to more varied answers—I believe they were very surprised by the volume of replies. Another change came in how the site of the killing was described—originally described as ½ mile off-trail, the emphasis shifted to being a popular area less than a mile from residences as commenters used the hiker being off-trail and not having bear spray to argue in the bears’ favor. The absurd highlight came when someone suggested the person ran, and NPS replied that he was not wearing running clothes.
I wish I knew that area better and that NPS gave a more detailed description of the area where the attack happened. I’ve hiked Elephant Back trail, but I’m not sure where, what, or why this popular off-trail area people frequent is. Near the top or bottom, a hot spring, a view, a shortcut to housing? One NPS comment said there was evidence of a bear digging for truffles—do people go there for the same reason, competing for food?
Let’s be clear–no matter how authoritative some people try to sound, none of us posting on the internet really knows what happened, not me, not the people I agree with or the people I disagree with. NPS has probably reconstructed the events to a greater extent than has been made public yet, but their final report almost certainly won’t claim to know what happened either.
But as far as this specific bear, she had lived in this area for many years, raising at least five sets of cubs often visible from roads and by photographers. That visibility is part of the reason there was so much response to the plan to kill her. Despite the fact that photographers often break the rules regarding wildlife, there apparently was never an instance where she had acted aggressively toward anyone despite their closeness, and she’d never been captured by NPS.
That doesn’t seem to make her a likely candidate to suddenly decide that people were prey so it seems almost certain to me that this was a case of a hiker surprising her and her cubs. He didn’t have bear spray to defend himself, and given the defensive wounds on his arms apparently resisted rather than playing dead as advised. If he’d died under those circumstances and the bear walked away, she might not have been killed, although a witness still might have been needed.
Repeatedly in its comments, NPS wrote that the crucial factor was that the man had been (significantly) eaten and cached for further eating. That was also the case of the bear they killed in 2011—other bears had been on the scene and the NPS report acknowledged there was no proof she had even committed the second attack, but she’d eaten from that body, and lethally defended her cubs a month earlier, which proved a fatal combination for her. But if a person was killed accidentally rather than intentionally, there’s no reason a bear shouldn’t eat the body—it’s dead meat, just like elk and bison carcasses. Unfortunately, people have a hard time accepting that. Many people like the idea of their ashes being scattered in Yellowstone as a favorite place; personally, I’d much rather my body be eaten by the wildlife there, whether bear, wolf, raven, magpie, whoever. That’s the cycle of life.
Using legalistic rather than biological language, NPS wrote several times:
Allowing a bear that ate a person to live would be negligent: waiting for more people to die before taking action is an unacceptable risk.
Although they admit there’s no proof, they’re afraid once bears have had a taste of humans, there will be a whole lot of stalking going on (even though grizzlies don’t generally do that with the adult elk and bison whose corpses they’re much more used to eating, we’d be a much easier target). But, although most bears who eat a person in North America are killed (which eliminates the possibility of proof one way or the other), in fact there has been at least one case (1984 in Pelican Valley in Yellowstone) of a camper being killed and eaten by a bear which was never captured, and reportedly several other bears ate from the second body in 2011 without being killed, and yet there were no following strings of attacks on people.
Based on fears and maybes and the need for at least the illusion of being safe and in control, the mother bear was killed, and the two cubs will be sent to the Toledo zoo (a whole other issue). Although I’m sure many weren’t happy with this decision, people who live and work there also have their self-interests of continuing their jobs and lifestyles involved.
I can understand killing a bear who attacks people in a developed campground in the middle of the night, but I don’t agree with killing a bear who kills a hiker whether she eats him or not. That is a risk the hiker is taking and if not willing to accept the possible consequences, the hiker shouldn’t be there–there are plenty of places without bears in the world to hike. To me, the wildlife in Yellowstone is much more important than the people there. Other species need a place to live much more than we need another place to play.
Unfortunately the NPS policy doesn’t allow the hiker to accept the responsibility and consequences of his own choice (a commenter who claimed she knew this hiker wrote that he wouldn’t have wanted this bear killed and I would certainly feel the same way). It does allow him to hike alone and not carry bear spray (though advising against both), but those are choices which could lead to a bear being killed.
The problem for NPS is that it was created with conflicting instructions. One of their comments:
These are tough questions, and they get at the heart of a conflict inherent in the Organic Act that created the National Park Service: “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
If you read through our management policies (http://www.nps.gov/policy/mp/policies.html), you’ll find the following passage (4.1 General Management Concepts):
The Service will not intervene in natural biological or physical processes, except
· when directed by Congress;
· in emergencies in which human life and property are at stake;
· to restore natural ecosystem functioning that has been disrupted by past or ongoing human activities; or
· when a park plan has identified the intervention as necessary to protect other park resources, human health and safety, or facilities.