When a grizzly bear killed a hiker in Yellowstone National Park last year, millions of people took it personally.
“The public response was 100 percent different than two years ago,” said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear manager. “Twenty-five grizzly bears a year die in Yellowstone Park, but this one had a name.”
Her name was Blaze, according to the outpouring of outrage on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets that appeared within a day of the Aug. 11 incident. Gunther and other park officials still aren’t sure it was that particular, often-photographed sow with two cubs (there were four such females with two cubs in the area). But they are sure their decisions, and all future debate about managing grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountain West, are under a new level of scrutiny.
The attack took place on a Thursday. It was reported to rangers at 9:01 a.m. Friday. By noon, a search team had found the hiker’s body, and saw a bear leaving the scene. They spent that afternoon combing the area by air and setting up a culvert trap 9.4 meters away from the body’s location. The bear was caught shortly after midnight, and a news release was issued Saturday morning.
“It totally blew up on Saturday afternoon,” Gunther said. “Very quickly, my email and voicemail were overloaded. I was getting letters from all over the world. Our office was getting hate mail and death threats. One person even had her children threatened. We had law enforcement patrolling their houses.”
Shortly after the controversy got rolling, someone created a petition asking Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk to “not kill Blaze, the Yellowstone grizzly sow and her infant cubs.” The petition was closed after the announcement that the bear was killed, but not before it gathered 143,170 signatures.
“Just think if everyone who signed that donated $25 for habitat conservation,” Gunther said. “Bears would be a lot better off. I wish we could find a way to funnel that hatred and passion into conservation.”
It also overwhelmed the park’s media office. Aware that the case was going viral, the investigators tried to publish results of their efforts as soon as they got them. But other commentators kept adding different scenarios that conflicted with what the rangers had on record.
“There are no good answers to that,” said Sandy Snell-Dobert in Yellowstone’s Office of Strategic Communication. “With all the ongoing discussion going about this, you’ll see us much more trying to be proactive and trying to get ahead of things. But just trying to monitor everything that’s out there is more than a full-time job.”
One meme stated that a large male grizzly had fed on the hiker’s body, so the female was falsely accused and killed. Yet another described the final moments of the incident, claiming the hiker ran from the bear and at one point, punched it in the nose.
But the evidence from the scene showed no adult male paw prints in the area, only female bear bite marks on the hiker’s body and only the suspect female’s DNA on the hiker’s wounds. Those DNA samples were flown out of the park to a lab in Bozeman, with results delivered 36 hours later.
The hiker had defensive wounds on his arms and face, indicating he tried to protect himself as the bear attacked. There were no tracks indicating he ran from the initial encounter. There was no GoPro or dash-cam footage to record the battle.
That didn’t stop scenarios accusing the hiker of jogging through bear country, in what Gunther called an attempt to cast blame on the hiker instead of the bear. But the jogging idea failed to account for the hiker’s leather boots, canvas pants, button-down shirt and previously sprained ankle.
Others pounced on the facts that the hiker was traveling alone and wasn’t carrying bear spray. Gunther agreed that traveling in groups with bear spray have been shown to deter bear attacks. But he also noted that trail-use surveys have found 60 percent of Yellowstone hikers travel in groups of three or less, and just 14 percent carry bear spray.
“He wasn’t following recommendations,” Gunther said. “But he wasn’t doing anything unusual either.”
The story added new levels. Some commenters posted that Blaze was related to Lightning, another socially popular bear that was killed after attacking a hiker in 2011. Yellowstone officials reported the DNA test showed no family link between last summer’s dead bear and Lightning, but that didn’t stop the discussion.
Instead, it rekindled suppositions that Lightning was killed after ripping open an unattended backpack looking for food. For the record, the hiker in that case was using his pack to fend off the bear’s attack, and it got torn open in the clash.
Commenters moved on to the National Park Service’s motivations. Some claimed it was fear of litigation from the hiker’s family that prompted the kill order for the bear.
“We wanted to make sure this bear couldn’t do this again to another hiker,” Gunther said. “Our guidelines state that removal from the population is called for when serious injury or loss of life is involved.”
Guidelines for bear management may get a lot more complicated next year when the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee releases a new proposal for removing federal Endangered Species Act protection from grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. More than 700 grizzlies live there now, and IGBC biologists argue that’s about the carrying capacity for the area.
In 2015, 55 grizzly bears died and four were removed in the GYE. That’s a record high year for bear losses in the GYE, beating the previous high of 56 in 2012. In 2014, a year with good bear food availability, 28 grizzlies died or were removed.
Wildlife managers killed 24 bears after conflicts with people or livestock in 2015. Four were hit by vehicles and eight were killed by hunters. And 19 incidents remain under investigation.
The four removals were orphaned cubs sent to zoos, including the two belonging to the bear that killed the hiker in August. They are added to the loss total for the area, bringing it to 59.
The delisting proposal isn’t public yet, but it’s already stirred up its own social media debate. Many people are using the Blaze incident as a talking point.
“A lot of the photographer community is divided whether they should have killed her or not,” said Daryl Hunter, an Idaho professional photographer who’s reasonably certain he’s seen the suspect bear for years. “A lot of regular photographers agree with the decision. I do. I lead tours out here, and I tell people we’ll be seeing bears out here. They don’t associate us with a food source. But bears are quick learners. Those who are out there often don’t want bears that have eaten people out there with us.”
Hunting grizzlies isn’t an easy solution, however.
“I’m one of those people in the middle,” Harris said. “I’m a political conservative, and a wildlife photographer. The Endangered Species Act is a double-edged sword. We’ve recovered the grizzlies pretty well, and I think it’s OK to delist it and have a hunting season.
“But photographing and watching bears is a huge business in Grand Teton and Cody and Gardiner. The bears we see are an economic resource. (The delisting plan) has a 20-mile section between Grand Teton and Yellowstone that would be open for hunting. When hunting opens, that’s going to eliminate all the bears that are not afraid of us.”
Frequently seen bears like Blaze, 399, Scarface and other roadside attractions have almost become a pseudo-subspecies from grizzlies that live in more remote wilderness, according to biologists. They develop a different social structure, tolerating one another in closer quarters instead of getting into deadly territorial battles. They also tolerate human activity, learning to avoid the temptation of people food that wilder bears investigate. Living along road corridors adds to their notoriety.
“Having hung out in some of those Jackson Hole bear jams, it’s not my cup of tea, but I found the whole phenomenon fascinating,” said Louisa Willcox, a frequent critic of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. “It is really meaningful for people. It’s a way of understanding the ecosystem, the world in a really different way. And then they write about it on Facebook.”
Willcox said the reaction to incidents like the killing of Cecil the Lion in Namibia last summer was an example of the kind of energy social media can spin up.
“A lot of other lions were killed around the park, but that lion had a name and a fan club,” Willcox said. “It had an emotional resonance with people. I think these bears are part of bigger phenomenon going around the country and the world, elevating the rights of animals. They have families and feelings just like we do.”
Bringing these other voices to the debate could change the way public wildlife agencies function, Willcox said.
“Right now, that’s what they do – they hunt things,” Willcox said. “Yes, they also promote coexistence with grizzly bears and wolves, but they’re based around killing things. That’s their financial framework. But in other parts of the country, there’s been great deal of reform of culture and financial makeup of state game agencies. People are saying whoa – animals have a right to be treated differently. Isn’t the hope, in having more diverse voices, that there’s some promise of more representative democracy?”
Unfortunately, there’s no voting booth in the Twitterverse.
“I guess what this shows is there’s a lot of passion out there for bears,” bear manager Gunther said. “But all that passion didn’t do anything for bear conservation or for Blaze.”