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Grizzly sow in Glacier will be killed

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WEST GLACIER - She's up in the Nyack Creek wilderness right now, working huckleberry hillsides with her two cubs, but this old grizzly will come back. She always comes back.

That's the problem. That's why this time, when she returns, she'll be killed.

"No one wanted this outcome," said John Waller, a wildlife biologist at Glacier National Park. "This was a hard, hard decision."

All the harder, he said, because of the tremendous work that has gone into keeping this bear alive. She's known as the "Old Man Lake female," because for much of her 17 years she's been hanging around the backcountry campground at Old Man Lake.

She never charged anyone, never huffed and bluffed, never attacked. But she has been unnervingly friendly. She'd amble into camp to see what you were cooking for dinner. She'd sniff your tent at night. She'd greet you on the trail and insist you give way, rather than the other way around.

Which is why, in 2005, park rangers enlisted the help of Carrie Hunt and her Wind River Bear Institute. Think horse-whisperer for grizzly bears.

Hunt's job is to teach bears and people how to live and let live, and her work with the Old Man Lake female was nothing short of precedent setting.

"She's a very gentle, flexible bear," Hunt said. "But she has some real bad habits."

Historically, bear problems have been solved with high-caliber answers, which is not so healthy for endangered grizzlies. Hunt had a different plan, and the brass at Glacier Park was more than ready to give it a try.

"I'm very supportive of the park," Hunt said. "There isn't another park anywhere that's gone as far as Glacier has to make conditioning a part of their bear management program."

Conditioning - aversive conditioning - is the art of teaching bears "no." Sometimes it means pepper spray, or, if more reach is needed, rubber bullets and cracker shells. But Hunt took it further, using specially trained dogs to not simply instill fear in the bear, but to teach bears what was allowed and what was not.

It's OK, for instance, to use a trail, so long as you give way and hide in the brush when hikers come by. It's OK to stake out a huckleberry patch, so long as you lie low and move on when people-pickers arrive.

Hunt's dogs didn't scare bears up trees; instead, they worked grizzlies the way cow dogs work cattle. This, she said, is sophisticated bear behavior modification, teaching bears how to make good - and lifesaving - choices.

She worked more than a dozen bears off Glacier Park's Camas Road, ending a perennial bear jam there. She moved a grizzer off the popular boardwalk at Logan Pass in just five days, and he never caused another day's trouble. She worked bear after bear after bear, in Glacier and far beyond, and her success was nearly universal.

And so in 2005, Hunt was optimistic when she joined Glacier Park rangers in the Old Man Lake backcountry, at the scenic mountain headwaters of the Two Medicine drainage. The female there was a good fit - a nuisance, but not aggressive. The bear also was valued for her productivity, keeping up a regular brood of cubs and bolstering the region's grizzly population.

It was, Waller said, one of the first times such techniques had been attempted in the backcountry. The bear had maybe eight years of bad habits by then, but seemed easygoing and ready to learn.

"We worked her for 10 days that summer," Hunt said. "The park was great, bending over backwards and going all the way for this bear."

Then they worked her another 10 days a year later, in 2006, "and she just was as good as gold."

In fact, the Old Man Lake female melted into the wilderness and wasn't so much as seen in 2007 or in 2008.

Hunt knew she'd eventually need some "booster" work to reinforce the lessons, but that costs money. And the bear had dropped her radio collar, which further complicated things. For lots of reasons, the follow-up booster work never happened.

And so Hunt wasn't exactly surprised to hear that the grizzly sow was back in 2009. Back in campsites, snuffling around tents. Back looking for easy meals. Back teaching her two cubs all the wrong lessons.

At one point, Waller said, a pair of hikers were watching her from across the lake. She spotted them "and came on over to say 'hello.' She just continued to approach people."

If a bear is overly friendly, and won't give way, it's considered "habituated." Park guidelines are somewhat flexible for habituated bears. But if a grizzly repeatedly approaches people, then it's considered "conditioned," and options become limited.

It took three contentious hours for biologists and park management to decide the female had, finally, crossed the line. She would be, in park parlance, "removed" from the population.

No zoos want adult grizzly bears, so her fate is sealed. The yearling cubs, perhaps, can be caught and sent to the Bronx zoo.

Critics have complained that the park erred in not following through, especially after making such an unprecedented initial effort. Others have suggested the initial conditioning failed in some way.

"But I'd hate for anyone to think that aversive conditioning failed in this case," Waller said. If your kitchen sink clogs, he said, and the plumber clears it, and then it clogs again two years later, "you don't say the plumber failed, do you? We just didn't have endless resources to devote to this one bear."

Waller said the park remains committed to shepherding bears rather than removing them, and both he and Hunt hope the death of the Old Man Lake female - who met so many hikers personally - will inspire renewed efforts to catch problems before they start.

"I totally support the park in their decision to remove this bear," Hunt said, "because if they can't do the booster work, she's way too high a risk. But I would like to see them receive the budget to work with bears before they get to this point."

"That's our goal," Waller agreed, adding that "the best outcome would be to use her story as an example of why we need to work with bears earlier."

There is no best outcome for the Old Man Lake female, however.

A GPS signal puts the old grizzly over the ridge right now, in a remote corner of the park to the west. But she'll be back. She always comes back.

This time, however, will be her last.

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