Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Training People To Watch Bears

When You Can’t Train People, Train Bears

©Bert Gildart: June, again, and already bears are being sighted in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Just last night I visited with a friend, a bicycler, who had been riding the Going-to-the-Sun Road when he spotted a grizzly bear—as had others.

According to my friend, several were approaching the bear with their pocket-size digital cameras, trying to move in closer for a better shot.Some, apparently, were dangerously close, and the story reminded me that once again people apparently believe when they drive into Glacier, they’ve arrived at a zoo, where everyone is protected and only good things can happen.

My friend’s story also reminded me of an incident that occurred two years ago, and that I reported on in the form of a feature story to the Daily Interlake, the Flathead’s local paper. At the time, Janie and I were hiking along the well-used trail from Many Glacier to Iceberg Lake, when we encountered about 10 to 15 people peering down a bank toward a huge grizzly located about 50 yards away.

The bear was munching its way through a lush patch of serviceberries and now it was moving uphill. Suddenly, a couple with cameras around their necks began running up the trail, intent on cutting off the bear from its apparent goal of crossing the trail—away from the crowd. The couple’s action generated pandemonium among some. One lady sprang off the bank flanking the trail. With legs churning, she scurried downhill toward the safety of the Swiftcurrent Motor lodge, located about a mile away, yelling all the while, “Hey bear. Hey bear.”

A middle-aged man from Alabama decided to go the other way, for the bear was now on the trail, and he wanted a frame-filling picture of the 350 to 400 pound bruin, which he intended to obtain with his disposable camera. But he was so flustered that his approach to within 30 feet of the bear, produced nothing, and he panted out to the crowd as he jogged back. “My camera was empty.”

By now the bear was hemmed on two sides with several hikers moving yet closer. Strangely, the bear was tolerating them. But a biologist would have understood the tolerance—for in the parlance of bear managers, the animal had become “habituated” to the presence of people.

The condition has often contributed to the almost 200-plus maulings Glacier has now experienced, 12 fatal. Just how the events between an acclimated bear and a crowd of people, which vacillated between fear and absolute arrogance might play out, would be anybody’s guess.

At the moment the bear was focused on that same lady with the camera who had sprung from the crowd. And now the distance separating bear, lady and her companion had diminished to about 15 feet.

According to a subsequent conversation with several managers, almost everything that could be done wrong had been done wrong, not only by the crowd but probably by me as well; it was simply a matter of degree. Certainly I should have known to retreat calmly and deliberately, for once I’d worked as a seasonal ranger in Glacier and seen in the course of my work the very worst that can ever result when bears and people meet. But at the moment I was too was caught up in the ongoing drama to use caution and depart. I wanted to see how all this might play out.

According to bear expert Tim Manley of the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, our reaction was fairly typical. Manley emphasized, however, that no one should ever run in the presence of a grizzly. Grizzlies are predators and could interpret flight as that of a species of prey. Manley continued, suggesting that since you can’t seem to teach people, you must train bears.

“That may be easier,” says Manley,” adding, too, that the park must continue with its Bear Management Plan.In a nutshell that means closing the trails or attempting to reshape the personality of an habituated bear. Sometimes, reshaping might include such a fundamental technique as shouting.

In the case of a more severely habituated animal it means that rangers must detonate firecracker-type rounds fired from a shotgun.Or, it means they must shoot the bear with rubber bullets fired from a rifle. They can also set out Karelian dogs. But if all else fails, they must kill the bear.

Apparently the Iceberg Trail bear had become severely habituated, for a week after my initial encounter I hiked back up the trail intent on visiting Ptarmigan Tunnel. Though I was making much noise, the same dark-colored bear with silver ruff was now bathing in a tiny creek that ran through the trail. Because the bear was lying in that creek I didn’t see it until I was within about 40 feet when it slowly rose.

Quickly I backed off, and when the bear simply stared as I retreated, I realized that this could be a dead bear. And now I was angry. And though I was mad at myself I felt that it was not unreasonable to share the blame, for the serviceberries (a prime grizzly bear food) had been lush and plentiful, and the bear had been well known for its habituation, and though the people and the bear gathered last week had gone their separate ways, the crowd had reacted with something far less than insight. In fact, a potential disaster had been averted only because the bear had eventually climbed the bank and sulked off into the brush to a chorus of shouts.

“Good bear,” a nearby spectator shouted in what may have been a supreme paradox. “Good bear!”

“Have a good life,” said another.

And then I wondered just how often the curtain over this scenario had risen before, and how many more times it might rise again before that same curtain would come crashing down…

And now, two years later, I’m wondering if the groundwork has already commenced to be laid for more tragedies either to people, or to Glacier’s bears.

One Response to “Training People To Watch Bears”

  1. Harry Morton Says:

    I saw, just last night, the PBS showing of Glacier National Park Night of the Grizzlies and have a question about the two young ladies who were killed in that story.
    Is there any correlation between the sex of the victims and the attack by the bear?
    In the report the bear was in the process of mauling a male hiker when it suddenly released him and then attacked the young lady. The victim at Trout Lake was also female.
    Living in Central Texas I’m not exposed to bears and have never seen one in the wild but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any evidence to suggest a preference on the part of the bear.