The night before a long hike that would take me around the north side of Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park, I had a short phone conversation with my girlfriend. “Be careful,” she said, referring to the potential for running into a grizzly bear. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “This isn’t a big grizzly area.” The next day, after hiking roughly five miles along DeLacy Creek and wrapping along the north side of the lake, I fell into a groove.
Growing up on the east coast, I treasured the opportunity to lose myself in thought while wandering through the forests of New England. Never did I have to disrupt myself from whatever inane thought was bouncing around my head as I ambled past babbling brooks and moss covered trees. So when I moved to Yellowstone in 2009, it was difficult adjusting to the new reality of there being an animal capable of killing and eating me should the wrong circumstances arise. Since then, I’ve eschewed the ability to relax into the gentle, carefree cadence to which I was accustomed.
After hiking for a few hours that day, I entered a dense lodgepole pine forest – hardly prime grizzly habitat, and I allowed my mind to drift. When I came around a bend a few minutes later, the sound of a large crash jolted me from my silent reverie, and I instinctively stopped while peering through the stand of trees directly in front of me. On the other side of the thicket of thin, straight lodgepoles, less than fifty feet away, a mass of light brown fur clumsily bounded in the opposite direction, quickly disappearing into the thick forest. I had surprised the bear, but luckily for me, it did what most bears do: run in the opposite direction.
My heart pounded audibly for the next ten minutes thinking about how the situation could have turned out differently. But, as my fear subsided, a thrilling feeling of gratitude and appreciation emerged. I had encountered arguably the most dangerous of North American mammals on its own terms. Nothing could replicate that moment.
Early this month, a Montana man also made a mistake while hiking in Yellowstone, but unlike me, he wasn’t so lucky and ended up paying the ultimate price. Since then, the Park Service captured and euthanized the bear after confirming it was the killer.
It is easy to say that after a bear has killed someone, we cannot take the risk that it might do it again. The wounds on the bear’s victim suggested that it was a defensive attack, and with a couple of cubs in tow, it is not difficult to reason that this was the motive. If such was the case, the bear did exactly what we expect bears to do in such circumstances. Even so, the knee-jerk reaction on the part of park wildlife managers was to euthanize the bear.
We seek out places like Yellowstone because they are wild, and no animal better symbolizes wildness than the grizzly, which ranges over thousands of acres over the course of their lives. Yet this is also part of the problem. All too often, grizzly bears are reduced to little more than symbols.
The grizzly is Montana’s state animal, and the towns surrounding Yellowstone are populated by businesses with names like Grizzly Lodge, Grizzly RV Park, Grizzly Internet Service Provider, and Grizzly Lounge. It may be easy to employ the grizzly as a symbol, but it is much more difficult to adapt to the challenges that come with living alongside them. To do so is inherently an act of humility and recognition that we do not control everything, but if we are so quick to kill each bear that threatens our dominance, the deference demonstrated by celebrating the idea of this animal is empty.
When the park service was established in 1916, it was given the conflicting mission of conserving resources such as wildlife while also providing for the enjoyment of visitors. This July, Yellowstone set an attendance record with more than 980,000 people visiting the park, thus making it increasingly difficult for the park to balance these competing objectives. As I discovered, there is as much difficulty as there is joy in accepting the reality of wildness, but if we want Yellowstone to continue to be the epitome of this uniquely American value, we must treat its wildlife as such and manage it with the same sense of purpose and principle that allowed for the park’s creation.