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-- Mark Twain
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Shooting of Glacier Sow and Cub Grizzly Bear Generates Outrage – and Raises Many Questions

©Bert Gildart: On August 17, two rangers tracked a female sow and her cubs to the campground at Old Man Lake, which is located in Montana’s Glacier National Park near the Two Medicine area. As directed, they killed the sow using high power rifles. One hour later, they attempted to dart one of the yearling cubs, but inadvertently hit the cub near its carotid, which soon generated trauma and then, death. As well, they darted the second cub with a tranquilizer drug.

The sow was 17 years old, and the directive to kill the bear has generated much controversy – even outrage. The park has received many letters, and so have local news papers. Seasonal employees have opined that there were other options. In fact, so many have expressed strong beliefs that park officials will be holding a meeting September 15 on both the park’s east and west sides to answer questions. Seasonals, of course, are unofficial public relation agents, and when they return home, their voices will be heard.


Interestingly, the sow in question is one which I encountered along with several friends while hiking three years ago into Glacier’s Cut Bank valley. Nearing a place along the trail known as Atlantic Creek Junction, there, standing about 30 yards away was a large sow grizzly bear with distinguishing marks. Wind had been blowing hard and perhaps the old sow had not heard us, but when she did, she stopped and then stared.


A tranquil Two Medicine Lake and Sinopah Mountain creates a serene setting that tends to obscure the difficult decisions park managers must make to maintain a balance between Glacier's primeval qualities and visitor safety. Over the years, about 200 bear maulings have occurred, 10 of them fatal. Recently, in an effort to protect visitors, park managers deemed it necessary to remove a grizzly bear family from a drainage adjacent to this one. But their plans went awry, generating much controversy, particularly among seasonals, which will soon be more formally addressed.

As a group, we all began backing away. In turn, the sow turned and ambled off into the brush. We waited for awhile, then continued, but we could hear her and occasionally see the brush slowly moving. She was leaving, but, admittedly, in no hurry to do so. That, apparently, is pretty much the way in which she has reacted when encountering hikers in the adjacent Old Man area.  She was never shy around people, but she was never overtly aggressive either, even with cubs. Of course, that is precisely the way in which a number of bears in the Many Glacier respond — and I’ve reported on that in the past, both here and in the Daily InterLake.


As a member of the outdoor media, I receive news releases from Glacier, and in one dated August 18, 2009, Superintendent Chas Cartwright stated the rationale for disposing of the sow – which now had cubs: “Unfortunately,” said Cartwright in the release, “this entire family group of grizzly bears had become overly familiar with humans… Park resource personnel worked to keep this bear and her offspring in the wild for five years, but given her most recent display of over-familiarity in combination with her history of habituation, we determined that the three grizzlies posed an unacceptable threat to human health and safety; and therefore, needed to be removed from the park.”

The park also points out that they had brought in Karelian dogs in an attempt to bring about aversive conditioning, and had closed the remote Old Man Lake Campground, but with no success.

Regarding the decision to remove the cubs, Cartwright continued. “Given the possibility that her offspring had learned this type of overly-familiar behavior and the diminished chance of their survival, we simply could not leave the yearlings in the wild. We deeply regret the loss of the one cub, but are thankful that the other yearling will soon be transported to the Bronx Zoo.”


Bears, of course, are one of the animal’s on the Threatened Species list, and most park visitors value their presence, and, so, you can bet your bottom dollar that every bear’s death is reviewed in bars, around supper tables, and sometimes, too, after reading from noted books. From these works, parallels are drawn and that’s when the questioning begins…

One of the similarities that cropped up is from Jack Olsen’s book, Night of the Grizzlies, which as Bill Schneider said in a recent New West column, “may be the best selling outdoor book ever.” In his column he  provides a link to one of my posts, which details the tragic events surrounding Glacier’s first fatal maulings.

The anecdote in question harkens back to a day in 1967 when Cliff Martinka, a park biologist of the time, decided over the objection of George Ostrom, a well know local media gadfly, to dispose of two yearling cubs. “Ranger executives,” as Olsen called them, had decided two yearling cubs had to be disposed of because they had become addicted to garbage in the backcountry, particularly at Granite Park Chalet. Here, chalet mangers were intentionally feeding garbage to grizzly bears so guests could see these most powerful of North American wild mammals, creating a number of “habituated” adult bears and even several yearling cubs. In turn, that contributed directly to one of the park’s two fatal maulings, which occurred one August night in 1967. Garbage was also associated with the other fatal mauling, which occurred at Trout Lake — the same exact night as did the one at Granite Park.


” [But] why shoot them?” yelled an angry Ostrom, referring to the cubs at Granite Park. Then, growing even more angry: “God damn it! The cubs won’t come back if there isn’t any garbage to come back to!” But the damage had been done, for Martinka had already fired at the bears with his high-powered rifle. His shot, however, was not fatal. Rather it struck the lower jaw of the cub, leaving it hanging. How could the young cub survive?

Fast forward now six months to the following spring of 1968 when rangers sight an emaciated cub emerging from hibernation. Again they see it, and not surprisingly, they see that it is unable to forage effectively, for its jaw has been shattered. This anecdote is found between pages 199 and 206 in one print version of Olsen’s book, and, as the work relates, rangers soon disposed of the poor creature, saving it from a lingering death.

Information from this tragedy is one several seasonals have posed to counter park arguments. “If a cub could survive the winter with a shattered jaw, surely a healthy cub could also survive.”

As well, they wonder about the marksmanship – the training – of the rangers. In fact, Jenny Blake, a seasonal ranger had been ordered to dispose of the sow in the 2009 Old Man bear family with a shotgun, but resigned, saying she didn’t have the proper training. That much seems clear, but according to the rumor mill, Ms. Blake said yet more. She said she favored further aversive conditioning and “could not shoot the mother bear.” She was then told that perhaps she shouldn’t be working here – and that’s when she quit. Certainly, some of the rumors will be cleared up in the upcoming meeting of seasonals with their permanent counterparts.

Regarding the recently killed grizzly sow, seasonals also wonder why officials didn’t simply close the campground rather than shooting the animal. Said one, “If the bear family did return the following year, couldn’t they reopen the case against the sow, who would then have been nearing the end of her life?” Continuing, seasonals say that the cubs would have been two years old, and capable of taking care of themselves.


None of this should be misconstrued in a way that makes today’s park managers come off as being callous, heavy-handed mis-managers of wildlife, for if the bear did maim a visitor, managers would carry a heavy burden. Someone would know that his or her decision produced a visitor’s disfigurement – or perhaps even a visitor’s life. No one wants that!

Certainly that is one of the lessons from Night of the Grizzlies. And so, too, is an old cliché, which recalls that there is nothing predictable about a grizzly other than the fact that the animal is unpredictable. Making decisions about bears is an extraordinarily difficult tight rope to walk, and must sometimes be made quickly and without the benefits of retrospection. Still, the hope is that input from all interested parties will result in the type of wilderness settings most  want to see.

Seasonals will be meeting with their permanent counterparts September 15, 2009. Hopefully, I’ll have feedback, and if constructive will certainly share it.



*Mount Katahdin — An Appalachian Trail Terminus

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2 Responses to “Shooting of Glacier Sow and Cub Grizzly Bear Generates Outrage – and Raises Many Questions”

  1. Larry Says:

    I saw the “Nature” program on PBS last night about the Grizzly’s situation, and agree that the challenge of allowing these majestic animals to naturally survive and safely exist in public parks is complex. Especially when development, global warming, and pollution mutates the environment.

  2. Bert Says:

    You’ve done a wonderful job, Larry, of summarizing in a few sentences what I was trying to say in about 1,000 words. What with funds that are sometimes inadequate for training programs and the ecological challenges you alluded to, it is a wonder park managers do as well as they do. As I’ve said before, much has improved since those dark days of 1967.