Killer bears, and the humans who track them down

Freelance journalist Jessica Grose has a fascinating "long read" in Slate this week (and I'm not kidding about the long part, 8,000 words!) about Bear True Crimes: wild bears in and around Yellowstone National Park who, for one reason or another, attack humans.

Why does this happen? What's it like for the humans who survive? Who investigates the attacks, all CSI-style with DNA analysis and whatnot, and figures out what to do with the problem bears? Is it right to kill them?

Grose's report begins with the story of a mother bear who attacked campers in late 2011. Snip:

The euthanization of the bear known as “the Wapiti sow” was the culmination of a series of horrifying events that had gripped Yellowstone for months, and alarmed rangers, visitors, and the conservation biologists tasked with keeping grizzly bears safe. In separate incidents in July and August, grizzlies had killed hikers in Yellowstone, prompting a months-long investigation replete with crime scene reconstructions and DNA analysis, and a furious race to capture the prime suspect. The execution of the Wapiti sow opens a window on a special criminal justice system designed to protect endangered bears and the humans who share their land. It also demonstrates the difficulty of judging animals for crimes against us. The government bear biologists who enforce grizzly law and order grapple with the impossibility of the task every day. In the most painful cases, the people who protect these sublime, endangered animals must also put them to death.

Read Grose's "A Death in Yellowstone: On the trail of a killer grizzly bear," then read her interview with a woman who was attacked by a grizzly and lived to tell the tale. There's an interview with Grose about the reporting project at The Awl.

When I traveled to this area with Miles O'Brien for a PBS NewsHour piece about wolves last year (watch the video!), we visited the very room where some elements of the Wapiti Sow case would be managed just months later. It's the Office of Bear Management.

(Photo: "Growling Grizzly Bear with Snow," by Dennis Donohue, via Shutterstock)


  1. Yellowstone in the summer is a pretty remarkable display of the collective stupidity of humans. People willfully ignore warning signs and approach wild animals (bison are the worst, they look peaceful and slow so people aren’t as afraid of them) to get that perfect snapshot and act offended when told to back off. Being in a large group only seems to embolden, some kind of dice roll that they won’t be the one that gets trampled.

    They seem to respect bears a little more, but I believe that’s only because the rangers hear about bear sightings quite quickly and show up on scene within a few minutes to keep things in order. Pestering a  bear is totally okay, but getting a ranger mad at you? The places people draw their line for disobedience is pretty amusing.

    Couldn’t pay me enough to take a position of authority at Yellowstone.. it’s a PR disaster waiting to happen. Vocal group A wants the cuddly animals saved until someone gets killed, at which point vocal group B wants the bloodthirsty beasts purged from the face of the planet. It’s a lose-lose situation no matter how you handle it.

    1. People willfully ignore warning signs and approach wild animals (bison are the worst, they look peaceful and slow so people aren’t as afraid of them) to get that perfect snapshot…

      My family visited Yellowstone when I was about 7. I distinctly remember driving past a bunch of tourists meandering around a herd of bison resting at the side of the road. One man actually nudged a bull with his foot to try to get it to stand up for a better shot. This stuck in my memory because it was the first time I realized that adults were capable of doing anything so incredibly stupid.

    2. I’m usually for protecting humans from their stupidity but in the case of national parks I’m perfectly fine with big, bold signs stating:

      This is wilderness.
      If you get bitten be a bear, we will charge your heirs for the dental bill.

  2. I agree with xzzy!  Many are the idiots I have seen creeping up a bison because they look so soft!  If you are interested in the macabre, read “Death in Yellowstone.”  Bears and hot pots and murder!

  3. Well, watching the wolf documentary I immediately found an error.  Wolves were never extinct in the “lower 48.”  I remember very clearly when they came under the protection of the endangered species act.  There was a lot of uproar because there was still a viable wolf population in my state (Minnesota) and the farmers wanted to continue shooting any/all wolves on sight.  I am not talking about coyotes, which they called “brush wolves” there.  I’m talking about timber wolves.  I was very pleased that they were protected and the population has rebounded to the extent that it is not rare to see them.

    1. Bear’s are pretty mellow, even grizzlies.  Most of the people who get killed by them around here were doing dumb and totally unnecessary crap that got them killed.  

      1. Actually that’s not true at all, and not even a cursory googling backs that up.  Most bear attacks stem from the bear being surprised, usually by hikers/hunters who unknowingly walk into the path of a bear.    Perhaps you define walking  as “dumb and totally unecessary”?

          1. I could say the same about talking out of your ass, but I believe Rutger Hauer said it best:

            They don’t mind if you’re like a mile away, but if you get inside their circle they will maul you. If a bear’s claw would ever strike your face, it would take your whole face right off your skull. Your eyes, your nose, your everything. And you would die from it. 

  4. Is it right to kill them?

    Hmm… that’s a toughy.  Let me think about this for 0.001 seconds.  Yeah I’m going to have to go with HELL YES.

  5. I read something recently about what to do when you encounter a bear.  Apparently the old advice about playing dead works if the bear is threatened; if the bear is hungry, it’s a bit like covering yourself in barbeque sauce.

  6. Isn’t this a perfectly adequate response from the bears with regards to how we treat them in general?

  7. It is an unimaginable thrill to suddenly meet a grizzly only a few dozen feet away, especially when you are the one carrying the food. They are HUGE! Fortunately, this one left after standing on his hind legs for a 7 and a half foot view of us. Someone had been killed in this same valley the week before by an unknown grizzly. My suggestion to my wife that we hurry down the trail to the switchback so we can catch up with this bear was rejected without explanation. Sheesh! It was a better rush than amphetamines.

  8. You go messing around in bear territory and get mauled, that’s your own damned fault. The bear comes into our territory, that’s a different matter.

    1. The tricky part is determining where one begins and the other ends—it’s not like we have any kind of treaty with the bears. If your family goes hiking on a clearly marked trail in a heavily traveled section of Yellowstone park, do your children deserve to get eaten?

      1. Actually it’s relatively easy to manage with some population control. Bears generally want to avoid human establishments and other bears. So if you keep the population at a level where they are content with the amount of free space that Yellowstone provides, they may never wander outside the park or near humans.
        As the article mentions however, as the population grows the pressure will build and eventually bear sightings will grow.

        1. Well that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it. One person’s idea of “reasonable population control” is another’s “murdering innocent bears in their own territory.”

  9. It is difficult to make any conclusions regarding bear attacks.  They are powerful, unpredictable animals, grizzlies in particular.   I have been fortunate enough to see them in the wild on a few occasions and they are truly magnificent, in the way that perhaps only an animal that can take your life so easily can be.   A friend was treed by a grizzly sow (cubs nearby), then dragged out of the tree by his boot, only to be spared as he waited in the fetal position to die.   Others have been not so lucky.  The only sure-fire way to avoid them is to avoid the wilderness altogether.  Me I’ll take the risk if it means seeing the most beautiful places on the continent.  This book is the standard on the subject:

  10. If you are in bear country, don’t do stupid things.  Walk loudly in groups, with bear bells.  If you see a grizzly, do the fetal curl.  It really does work.  If you camp alone or store bacon in your tent, you deserve to be lunch.  I say this as someone who lived in western Montana, in bear country, for many, many years.  It is their territory, not yours.  That said, if a grizzly starts going after calves, then they will be killed.  

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