The grizzly art of justice in Yellowstone National Park

After spending more than $24 million over the past 26 years to recover grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone area, park officials spent ridiculous amounts to find and kill one bear - a bear whose guilt remains uncertain.

Seven grizzly bears were rounded up for DNA testing to determine which bear killed a Yellowstone National Park hiker in August, and on Tuesday, one grizzly and her two cubs were tied to the scene. The sow was euthanized and the cubs were sent to the Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone to be raised in captivity.

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. 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 was to hunt down and kill the offending animal.

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.

One of the captured grizzlies was tied to both Matayoshi and Wallace’s deaths, but park authorities were unable to determine whether the sow bear “attacked Mr. Wallace or came upon the scene subsequent to the attack.”

And yet, the bear’s life was sacrificed and her cubs captured, without clear evidence that the bear was truly the responsible killer. An act only intended 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.