August 14, 2015
By John Shivik
A grizzly bear attack flowed into my news stream today. Lance Crosby worked for a company that ran urgent care clinics in Yellowstone National Park. He went for a hike. He is now dead.
The response by the Park was swift. Any human death from the claws and canines of a wild carnivore is one too many, and the solution is part prevention, part revenge. Pronounced guilty for eating and not just killing, the sow grizzly bear was put to death and her cubs are destined for a life in captivity.
The preservationist backlash began even before the sow’s fate was solidified. Commentators pointed out that Mr. Crosby wasn’t following the obvious safety precautions that should be used in bear country: he was hiking alone; he wasn’t carrying pepper spray. He was asking for it. After animal attacks, some of us embrace victim blaming.
That isn’t right either. The loss of Lance Crosby is a terrible, unacceptable tragedy.
Humans are exceedingly schizophrenic on the subject of mammalian predators. The grizzly was extirpated from California within decades of the gold rush, but it remains a shameless cartoon on that state’s flag. We love them as symbols; we hate their reality.
Thanks to current laws and social values, predator populations in the United States are expanding. Awaking from the bad old days of extirpation—when it was policy to eliminate predators from Yellowstone—we have entered a new age of desiring holistic ecosystems and carnivore conservation. It is easy to forget the previous heavy handedness; by the twentieth century, vast expanses of the American West had become devoid of top predators. By the 1950s, largely through actions of federal trappers, we had killed off nearly every wolf and grizzly bear in the contiguous United States and had similarly decimated black bear, cougar, and even coyote populations. It is sometimes difficult to believe that in the early 1800s, perhaps 50,000 grizzly bears wandered between the Pacific coast and the Great Plains. By 1975, only a handful remained. Now, with only 1,200–1,400 wild grizzly bears in existence, they are no longer the lords of the landscape they used to be. Still, their populations are growing. They are returning, but the ultimate extent of their range will be bitterly argued for generations to come.
This issue will not fade any time soon. Indeed, it will continue to grow. Yes, we are invading the animals’ homes, but there is more than that. We are inviting them in to ours. We create lush landscapes of habitat that provide food and cover. Our parks, crops and gardens, campgrounds, and bowls of pet food lure the animals in, predator and prey alike. There will be more black bears and coyotes in back yards. There will be more cougars stalking foothill joggers. As grizzly populations increase, they will attack more people too. There will be more deaths in more places in the years to come. Far more people will die from lightning strikes every year, but that is different. We can’t kill lightning, but we can kill bears. So we do.
The ability to be killed by a wild carnivore is an ironic privilege in a developed country. For those of us interested in predatory mammals, it is a good problem to have. But it does not release us from the need to find balance between the beauty and danger that they create. Scientists and managers must strive to find new ways for humans and animals to coexist. The first tool is communication with the public.
The best thing that can come out of such a tragedy is information. Crosby’s loss can at least be used to expose some of the reality of nature to a wider range of people. Yellowstone is not Disneyland, although in my mind, many people confuse the two. How we talk about it is important, however, as the message is that we must respect predators for the danger they pose, but we should not fear them irrationally.
In a study of over 200 bear conflicts in Alaska, Dr. Tom Smith at Brigham Young University examined how well people fared in their encounters whether they carried a gun or not. Interestingly, he found little evidence that the use of firearms influenced the outcome—be it no injury, an injury, or a fatality. The most important aspect for predicting a safe outcome in an encounter with a bear, Smith concluded, was how people used their brains, not their guns.
Our intellect, then, is the key to having both people and predators on the landscape. In bear country we must be aware and prepared. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee asserts that people need to carry pepper spray—but most importantly, know how to use it. It can fend off a massive, charging bear. Like a firearm, it is not 100 percent effective, nor is it a substitute for common sense, awareness, and proper camp sanitation in bear country. First, actively avoid situations where you have to use such defenses. Then, know how to use them.
Enjoy the wild landscape. Enjoy the prickly awareness that there are challenges left in the natural world around you. Nature is as red in tooth and claw as it is aesthetically beautiful, and we will lose something of ourselves if we sanitize it completely. Venture out, but learn everything you can about the wild places and creatures before you go.
About the Author
John Shivik is a recognized leader in nonlethal techniques for predator management. As a federal and university researcher, he has investigated mammalian predators in ecological systems throughout the United States and Europe. His numerous scientific works have been published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Conservation Biology, and BioScience. He is also the author of The Predator Paradox.