©Bert Gildart: Nineteen sixty seven was a dramatic time in Glacier National Park. Some of the park’s worst forest fires were raging, but what I remember most were the park’s first fatal grizzly bear maulings. I remember them because I was intimately involved, and this year, I’m remembering them as Backpacker Magazine is recalling them in their current issue. As well PBS is interviewing me—and others—asking us to recall our various involvements. They’re doing so now as this year marks the 40th year since those tragic times. Like most people, I don’t mind a bit of publicity, but am hoping the various publications will also focus on the good that came from these horrible tragedies. To some extent, that is what Jack Olsen did in his classic book, Night of the Grizzlies.
1967 Killer Bear, created by backcountry neglect
I was involved essentially because all permanent rangers were out fighting fires. In 1967 I was a road patrol ranger and though I wanted to be out fighting fire—and had asked for such consideration—the powers to be felt road patrol work was critical to visitor safety, and so my request was denied. As a result, I was one of the few rangers available when tragedy befell the two 19-year old girls.
On August 13, 1967, shortly after midnight I was piloting a huge truck over Logan Pass. Suddenly I heard a voice from Granite Park Chalet trying to reach headquarters, but failing because of poor transmission. Hearing the voice, from my location high up near Logan Pass, I served as a relay to headquarters, explaining medical attention was needed at Granite Park Chalet—that a young lady had been critically mauled…
That night I returned to my apartment in West Glacier about 3 a.m.
Several hours later, about 6:30 a.m., Norm Hagen, another seasonal ranger, woke me and said that I was needed immediately, that a young lady had been mauled at Trout Lake, and that I was to hike the four miles into Trout Lake and the Camas Creek drainage and see what I could find. Not surprisingly, I was confused, for I could not believe that yet another mauling had occurred. Sadly, Norm told me the young lady at Granite Park had died hours earlier.
Driving around lake McDonald to the trailhead I then rushed into Trout Lake and met Leonard Landa, who had left an hour or so prior to my departure. He was the seasonal ranger at Lake McDonald, and was waiting for some support before beginning a search. With my arrival and that of a helicopter flown in by John Westover who brought in the park’s engineer, Max Edgar, we formed an adequate search party. We all fanned out and began a search–hoping for the best.
Moments later, Leonard called out softly and announced that he had found the girl. We wrapped her in a body bag and Westover flew her out. The engineer left his rifle with me, and Leonard and I searched the valley for other campers and then provided an armed escort to the one remaining couple that we had located miles up the drainage.
Several days later, Leonard and I were dispatched to find the bear. We hiked back into the valley, then hiked up the Camas Creek drainage and spent the night in the park’s Arrow Lake Patrol Cabin. Early next morning (to make a long story short), I went outside to use the bathroom, and there, about 30 yards away, was a grizzly bear. I called for Leonard to bring out the rifles, and when the bear started moving toward us, we both fired. Both shots were fatal, one fired from a .300 H&H magnum, the other from a .30-06. A later evaluation of the bear confirmed we had shot the right bear (we’d been told to shoot any bear we saw, believing that any bear that didn’t run was a suspect bear). Later evaluation also revealed the bear had glass embedded in its molars and that this was, in fact, a small emaciated 17-year-old sow, weighing less than 300 pounds.
Much the same thing was happening at Granite Park Chalet, though more bears were shot there as more bears had become “conditioned” to the presence of people.
About a week after the incidents, Ruben Hart, the park’s chief ranger and I flew by helicopter back to Trout Lake, and found so much garbage that the huge Huey Helicopter didn’t have adequate space for just a single trip. In fact, many trips were subsequently required to clean up this backcountry campsite.
In fact, virtually all backcountry campsites had become dump grounds. Because of the conditions, these were tragedies just waiting to happen. In fact, the dual maulings created a national outcry demanding an evaluation of backcountry conditions, and the implementation of a Bear Management Plan, previously lacking.
At Granite Park Chalet, managers there had been intentionally luring bears to the chalet to entertain guests. At the time, National Park managers said they were unaware of the situation, but that was not the case, as David Shea, another seasonal ranger, and I had hiked to the chalet a week prior to the mauling, watched the feeding and reported on our findings to park headquarters. Others had done similarly.
With time the problems were corrected, and a bear management plan was implemented. Still, about ten years later, another mauling occurred, this time along Divide Creek near St. Mary. Once again, garbage was the culprit, and I focused on that for a major story I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine. The story also examined bear biology.
Today, the park has a well thought out management plan. In the broadest sense, the plan seeks to separate people and bears, and has mandates to help achieve that goal. For starters, regulations prohibit dogs from accompanying their owners into the backcountry. As well, they suggest people not hike alone, or if they do, make plenty of noise. The plan recommends women not hike during their menses. In 1967 all these factors now considered taboo were present. But at the time, no one had researched the delicate coexistence of man and bear.
The plan further specifies that bears that habitually frequent areas of human habitation are tranquilized and then relocated. If they return, they are euthanized. The plan requires that you suspend food in a tree some distance from your tent. Of course, I’ve only touched the surface, as you’ll discover if you visit any park service facility.
Is the Bear Management Plan working?
I think it is and when you consider that over 2-million people now pass through Glacier National Park annually, it’s to the park’s credit that most fatalities that do occur in the park are generally not from bear maulings. Stupid things do, however, still occur, and I’ve inadvertently been in situations where people have done unimaginable things, but by and large, the park is much safer today than it was 40 years ago—that awful Night of the Grizzlies.
4th ed. Autographed by the Authors
Hiking Shenandoah National Park
Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.
$18.95 + Autographed Copy
Big Sky Country is beautiful
Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State
Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.
$16.95 + Autographed Copy
What makes Glacier, Glacier?
Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent
Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons
$16.95 + Autographed Copy