by Keith R. Crowley
Trying to make sense of last week’s fatal Grizzly bear attack on a hiker in Yellowstone National Park and its aftermath is a fool’s errand. But this fool is going to try anyway.
This kind of story wrenches its way deep into the psyche of all who spend time in the wilds. And it certainly wrenched its way deep into my soul since I spend months each year in Yellowstone and the surrounding Grizzly Country.
To make it even more personal, I, like many of my colleagues, came to “know” the bear believed to be involved in the attack.
I put “know” in quotes because it’s a fallacy to think we can really know a wild animal. There is simply no way to get inside their heads. Hell, most of us don’t even understand our own pets’ behavior very well, so we can forget about predicting a wild grizzly’s intent or motivation.
In the case of this particular bear, she was a 20 year old sow many of us call “Blaze.” In her two decades she had never been known to be aggressive toward people. In fact, she was remarkably tolerant given some of the situations she found herself in. She lived out her life in areas of high visibility in the park and therefore drew crowds for years on end. She raised many cubs, and she never got into serious trouble.
But then, for reasons unknown, she killed Lance Crosby and consumed part of him. She cached his body (buried it under debris to protect it from other predators) for later feedings, and she stayed in the immediate area. And she did this with her cubs present.
It is a worst-case scenario in the world of wildlife management. There can be no winners here.
Many “experts” immediately came out of the woodwork to explain that grizzlies don’t see humans as food; that this attack was purely a defensive, instinctual reaction by a sow grizzly protecting her cubs.
True, most bear attacks are defensive, and when the bear determines that the threat is gone they leave the area. But that’s not what happened to Crosby. This particular bear most certainly saw him as food.
Personally, I can’t imagine wild grizzly bears differentiating much between different types of prey. Elk, bison, deer, humans – all are potential meals. Because of generations of persecution, bears are naturally more fearful of humans, but like any apex predator they’ll eat whatever they can catch.
Whether this change from defender to predator happened during the initial attack on Crosby, or immediately afterward is irrelevant. It ended with the bear consuming a person. That’s the line in the sand which cannot be crossed. Humanity has a long policy of destroying man-eaters – justly or not.
In a place like Yellowstone, even habituated animals that have not actually attacked anyone are sometimes put down. The mantra there is “a fed bear is a dead bear.” This bear had no chance from the moment she fed on the body.
The particulars of this recent attack will always be shrouded in mystery because there were no witnesses. So the National Park Service investigators treat the area where the body was found as a crime scene. A lot of forensic evidence was, is, and will be gathered by investigators. A very detailed report about the evidence will eventually be generated.
The documentation regarding the park’s last grizzly-caused deaths, in 2011, is amazingly detailed. The rangers and scientists who investigated that scene, (many of the same people are working on this one, ) generated reams of data about the attack, and the final report on John Wallace’s death is lengthy.
There appear to be some similarities with the current fatality, although until a report like the one linked above is released, we can only speculate.
Speculation is, of course, often wrong and rarely helpful.
There are “experts” who speculate that just because the bear cached the body doesn’t mean that it now views people as a food source. But that is specious reasoning at it’s worst.
What the caching here definitively proves is that this particular bear viewed at least one human as a food source. And that means the bear must be removed.
Did the bear deserve to die? Of course not. This grizzly was only doing what bears do. There is no justice in removing the bear, and her cubs, and destroying any of them.
And the wildlife managers who must do the deed will gain no joy from the experience.
It’s insulting and contemptible to suggest that people who have devoted their professional lives to wildlife have anything but the deepest respect for animals. The very last thing they want to do is kill the creatures they are trying to preserve.
That dedication to the science of wildlife does, however, mean that they must sometimes make tough choices. And those tough choices are difficult to explain the public. But if the professionals don’t make the hard decisions, the potential downside is too great.
We know about that downside because when John Wallace was killed by a Yellowstone grizzly in August of 2011, the bear deemed responsible had been involved in another fatality two months earlier.
At that time, the Yellowstone Bear Management lead, Kerry Gunther, didn’t believe the situation warranted euthanizing the bear known as the “Wapiti sow.” His team let her go on her way because he had good evidence at the site of Brian Matayoshi’s death that this was a defensive attack. He also had an eyewitness. Matayoshi’s wife, Marylyn, was attacked in the same incident and she watched her husband die a few yards away.
8 weeks later came the Wallace attack. While there was no direct evidence that the Wapiti sow killed Wallace, DNA evidence indicated that she did feed on his body. How would you like that hanging over your head?
Those 2011 incidents certainly weighed heavily on Gunther and all the management people involved in the recent situation. The potential backlash (read: lawsuits for wrongful death) was simply too great if they decided to let this bear live and something happened again.
So, for the second time in a few weeks, I find myself in a position I don’t care for – attempting to be a voice of reason in a grave wildlife matter. Frankly, I don’t like it. And I know it will make me some enemies.
Like anyone else, I would prefer to rant, rave, cry, throw my hands in the air, point fingers, complain, and scream. But those things aren’t helpful at all. In fact, they’re counter-productive.
While many will blame Gunther, Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, and their colleagues for the death of the grizzly, some are content to place the blame on Mr. Crosby, a contract park employee and regular hiker who “should’ve known better.”
I’ve heard him called an “idiot”, “stupid”, “an asshole”, and several people have said he “deserved to be killed” by the bear because he invaded her home. It’s disturbing how callous some people can be.
Many have said that Crosby shouldn’t have been off trail, and that he broke all the rules about living in bear country.
On the first point, I will say that despite everything you hear out there on social media, Yellowstone National Park was NOT created so bears would have a place to live unaffected by humans. The purpose and intent of the park’s creators couldn’t possibly be any more clearly spelled out in the 1872 act which created it – and it is literally carved in stone on the Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance. The park was created “FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE”.
Yellowstone was created specifically to give us a place to experience the natural wonders which exist there in Yellowstone and nowhere else. That means people, within some limitations, get to enjoy the park as they wish. (See: https://lodgetrailmedia.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/tragedy-in-yellowstone-a-response/ )
Some want to see the park from the roads, and from inside their vehicles; some like to hike on well-worn paths; some ride horses into the backcountry; some will choose to go off-trail on foot. I, and many, many others, enjoy all of the above.
There is no right way to experience Yellowstone. Just because someone chooses to go off-trail doesn’t make them a villain.
That Yellowstone has become a de facto wildlife refuge is a great joy to me and millions of others. Many of us go there specifically because there are bears, and wolves, and moose, and bison living on the incredible landscape. But, everyone who goes there should do so with the full knowledge that these things, and many others, can kill us.
They should all know that the animals, the terrain, the weather, the thermals, and especially the traffic there, are all potentially dangerous. We just need to be aware.
That is the one place where the park has failed miserably. Far, far too many people view Yellowstone as the world’s largest drive-through zoo.
This brings me to the second point about Lance Crosby’s death: Yes, it appears he did ignore some rules.
First, he was alone when he was attacked. With or without bears, travelling alone in wild places is riskier than travelling in groups. But I understand the appeal of getting off the trail, and the solitude gained by doing so. There is great value in experiencing wilderness on your own.
Furthermore, being off trail isn’t necessarily more dangerous than being “on-trail.” All of Yellowstone is Bear Country, not just the off-trail areas.
Last May, many fellow wildlife photographers and I watched another park employee have a close call with Blaze and her cubs. The employee was simply out for a run along the shore of Yellowstone Lake near the Lake Hotel.
He ran down the lakeshore, turned inland on a trail and ran to within 50 or 60 yards of Blaze and her then tiny cubs, all hidden in the chest high sage brush.
When the runner realized that there was a large group of photographers a couple hundred yards off and looking his way, he knew something was up. He wisely slowed to a walk and backed out of the area.
Blaze undoubtedly knew he was there, and she did nothing. Wild animals are unpredictable.
I approached the runner minutes later and asked if he knew there was a Grizzly sow with cubs in the area. He didn’t. Until he saw us, he had no idea how close he was to potential disaster. He couldn’t have. Had he not seen us, he told me, he would have continued his run right into her and the cubs.
That situation could have easily become another Yellowstone bear attack, and if it had, I doubt anyone present would have blamed the runner. Lots of park employees and park visitors run, jog, and stroll through that area each and every day. It’s a well-established route that doesn’t look like “Bear Country”, and I have yet to see anyone carrying bear spray there.
Had Blaze attacked this young man, it would have just been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The internet would have blown up with accusations and insults, but those of us who spend much time there know how easily things can go wrong for no particular reason.
So, why is everyone so quick to blame Mr. Crosby?
Because this whole thing sucks and people need someone to blame, justly or not.
Mr. Crosby chose to be alone in Yellowstone and it cost him his life. It cost a grizzly its life, and may cost the cubs their lives, too. There is no justice to be had here.
Many bad things can happen when you’re alone, but so can many really good ones. Simply being alone in the park cannot be allowed to become a crime.
And the next mistake? We will never know if Crosby was making noise to alert unseen bears of his presence, but it doesn’t appear that he was carrying bear spray when he was attacked. It may have saved him and the bears, but maybe not.
Personally, I always carry it when I’m out of my vehicle, but I know that bear spray is not a guaranteed solution to a Grizzly attack.
In 2013, two off-duty park employees on a hike ran into another sow grizzly with cubs. Both used bear spray, and both were still injured by the bear. I’d rather have the spray than not have it, but I don’t fool myself that it’s totally effective either.
And to be honest, lots of people who do carry the spray wouldn’t be able to use it effectively in a crisis situation anyway. An instructional video is helpful, but it’s no training for a real bear attack.
Going off trail alone is not a mistake, it’s a choice. And it’s not against the rules – for now. It may be more inherently dangerous than staying with a group in a busy area, but again, some go to Yellowstone to get away from other people.
Frankly, you, me, Crosby, Wallace, the Matayoshis; indeed everyone who enters Yellowstone, could do absolutely everything right and still be attacked by a Grizzly. Just as there is no point in blaming the bears, there is no point blaming the victims. If you really need to blame someone, blame lawyers – they’re used to it.
In the end, a Yellowstone grizzly sow with young cubs – a bear many of us looked forward to seeing and wondering at each year- killed, ate and cached a human being. And she stayed to feed on the body again. Sadly, there was no choice to be made.
Rest well, Mr. Crosby. Rest well, Blaze.
Blaze in Yellowstone – May 2014
Note: You can read the author’s follow-up article to this story by clicking HERE.
Keith Crowley is a writer, photographer, and frequent visitor into wild areas in the American West. He can be reached through his web site: http://www.lodgetrail.com
Copyright 2015 – Keith R Crowley – All Rights Reserved