Friday, January 27, 2012

Ruminations on the Dark Side

After posting the link to the Night of the Grizzlies documentary, I had an online conversation with someone who did not believe that two bears were responsible for both of the deaths in Glacier that night. It is their opinion that the Trout Lake bear, which exhibited some signs of possible mental illness, traversed the distance from Trout Lake to Granite Park Chalet and then back to the lake, killing both girls. Truth be told, this is not completely out of the question. The distance from one site to the other is roughly nine miles and, considering that bears can travel great distances in short time periods, the four hours between attacks actually fits that theory nicely, but I don't believe it to be true for several reasons.

WARNING: The following contains graphic descriptions of the attacks that are unfortunately necessary to put this puzzle together.

First, the attack on Julie Helgeson at Granite Park Chalet seemed to fit the pattern of defensive behavior. Julie was severely wounded but left alive. The fact that the bear did not return for her in the two hours before she was found indicates that the attack was not predatory. While the bear may have had that idea at one point, it clearly lost interest and broke off the attack, either because Julie lost consciousness or played dead after being drug from the camp. The death of Michele Koons at Trout Lake was mercifully swift and her body was partially consumed, indicating clear predatory intention. It doesn't make sense to me that the bear would attack one girl, leave her, and traverse nine miles to kill and eat another. On top of that, the Trout Lake bear seemed to stay in the immediate vicinity of Trout and McDonald Lakes, harassing whomever he could find, and a bear matching the same description and aggressiveness as that one entered the campsite earlier in the night, as Michele and her friends were going to bed, and took some food.

That said, the fact that the bear responsible for Julie's death was never conclusively identified is still a mystery. A sow with cubs was shot and believed to be the killer, though there is no clear evidence proving it. Personally, I think this bear is the more likely culprit. Considering the defensive nature of the attack, the presence of cubs would be a clear instigator. It's strange, though, that the bear saw a threat in this situation. Julie and her boyfriend were in a designated camping area that people often frequent and were lying still and quiet when the bear entered camp, doing nothing to provoke it. After the sow was killed, it was found that a pad on one of her paws was partially cut off and hanging by a flap of skin, an injury that would have caused tremendous pain, provoking not only a bad attitude but possibly a mental derangement of its own. The presence of cubs coupled with the short-fuse mentality of a mother bear, egged on by dull, enraging pain could have easily created a very unstable animal. The fact that no human remains were found in the bear's stomach is not proof of the bear's innocence, just that it never fully switched over to predatory mode.

What this person I was conversing with could not accept was that two separate bears turned killer in the same night, an event that is beyond improbable. I think of the story of Mary Pat Mahoney, a 22 year-old girl killed and preyed upon by two grizzlies working together in Glacier Park in 1976. These same two predators had been raiding campsites and behaving very aggressively towards people for some time. If the night of the grizzlies was improbable, this one is off the charts. All of this led me to ponder the attitude that many bear advocates have about the dark side of the animal they love. With the increase in Yellowstone bear attacks, I've heard many of them respond with confusion and denial. Some have been quick to put all the blame on the victims while others believe that bear attacks are somehow all "propaganda". Truthfully, I understand where a lot of them are coming from. I remember the days when I was a bear attack apologist, when human lives were nothing more than statistics on a piece of paper, but those days are long in the past. After reading four dozen books, talking to almost as many people, and following this path for so long, the dark side of the bear has been unavoidable. To me, authors like Doug Peacock paint the most accurate picture of the bear and its mentality. It's a picture of an animal that's much like human beings: complex, intelligent, emotional, shaped by their sum total of life experiences, a creature entrenched firmly in a very gray area with some individuals leaning more towards the light gray and some leaning more towards the dark gray.

That's ultimately what fascinates me the most about grizzlies more than any other bear. At the moment, a whole new way of thinking about the black bear is sweeping the country but the grizzly remains a puzzling enigma. To me, the idea of peaceful co-existence with black bears is not that revolutionary. All one has to do is compare the number of black bears remaining in the lower 48 states of North America with the number of grizzlies to see which of the two is more docile and easier to get along with. The grizzly is a very volatile animal and - even though danger of attacks is exaggerated to an excessive degree - is partly responsible for giving itself the bad reputation its been stuck with. Here is an animal that has left a big question mark in the wake of almost all attempts that have been made to get along with it, a challenging animal that demands your respect and still makes no guarantees, a rogue that, in its arrogance and pride, refuses to conform to any whims our society seeks to place on it. That, to me, is the best thing about the grizzly. They make us look a little closer and work a little harder. They let us know that they're willing to get along but that they hold the cards and they will make the final call on their own fate. They are undeniably the ultimate symbol of true wilderness.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alaska Legalizes Aerial Hunting of Bears

As part of a series of increasingly aggressive predator control methods, the Alaska Board of Game has authorized the aerial hunting and shooting of bears by wildlife officials, a move that has even met with criticism from big game hunters and that allows for the killing of not only mothers with cubs but bears lying defenseless in winter dens. The board is also debating a ruling that will allow for snaring of both black and grizzly bears at various locations. The reason for this? Significant losses of moose and caribou numbers along the Dalton Highway in the Gates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Many hunters are arguing that there is no sense of fair play in these methods and the National Park Service is attempting to make a case that trapping and snaring are inhumane and often unsuccessful. So far, all please have fallen on deaf ears.

I'd actually be curious to know how they were able to come to the conclusion that bears and wolves are so heavily responsible for these losses. That would require a lot of man hours of observation and a large number of people on the ground to keep tabs on all of these animals in order to empirically determine that. I don't know, maybe they actually do have a fool-proof method. What I do know is that it's been a very harsh winter in Alaska and that has to contribute to the smaller numbers. I also know from spending time in Fairbanks that vehicle collisions are the number one cause of moose casualties in that area. Did whoever come up with these decreasing numbers factor that data into their equations? Again, I don't know. Maybe they did. Considering that Sarah Palin fought hard to put predator control methods like this into practice, I'm not too inclined to outright buy their reasoning for it. Right now the public outcry in Alaska against this is very high so we'll have to wait and see what effect that has.

Here are a couple of articles containing more information. First, further details on the new hunting expansion:

And finally an article by biologist Stephen Stringham refuting this new practice:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Glacier Park's Night of the Grizzlies

Iowa Public Television has uploaded Montana PBS' documentary Glacier Park's Night of the Grizzlies to their website and I highly recommend that everyone watch this! It is a stirring, emotional look at the inexplicable incident that claimed the lives of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons in 1967.

This was one of the first bear attacks I ever read about and I immediately felt a strong connection to both Julie and Michele, almost as if I knew them (Julie in particular - so much so that I named two characters in a recent short story of mine after them), and I've been researching it ever since. There are no easy answers about what happened that night and personally I'm not interested in asking those questions. The strong, almost spiritual, connection that I feel towards the victims (and I've heard a few other people admit to feeling the same) is what piques my curiosity about this event and it's what's compelled me to try to visit Glacier National Park this August for the anniversary.

Every day I check the stats on this blog. There I can see how many views I've received, what websites are sending traffic my way, and what search queries lead people to the blog. Every week I see at least a dozen or more search results relating to the night of the grizzlies and the names of the two girls so there is certainly a great interest in the incident and in the victims. If anyone reads this who feels the same or who knew Julie or Michele, please feel free to comment and let me know. I would love to hear from you.

Below is the link to watch the film online. While it's not quite as in-depth as Jack Olsen's book, it's still an informative and heart-wrenching piece that never fails to choke me up every time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2012: The Year Ahead

Chaik eating deer scraps in the snow at Fortress of the Bear - November, 2011.

So 2012 has arrived, marking the two-year anniversary of this blog's creation and the twists and turns of the incredible journey that I unknowingly set myself on. The unlikeliness of everything that's happened the past two years has not escaped me and I'm still amazed by it all. If it doesn't show what can be accomplished through simple marketing, then I don't know what does. But now the time has come to look forward to the year ahead and the various possibilities that await there.

I've been corresponding with biologist Stephen Stringham, who is working on what I think will be the most important series of books on bears ever written, and who is one of the few biologists working today who sees the great value captive bears offer in our understanding of their wild cousins. He has proposed doing a study at Fortress of the Bear to supplement work he has done with wild bears and asked me to assist him in the project. Despite my interest in bears being mostly "unscientific", the prospects of this are a big deal for all involved. It will help bring more attention and prestige to the Fortress and having my name attached to an official research project and (possibly) published paper will be quite beneficial for me as well. The Fortress is interested in participating and Steve is doing the application work for the grant money.

Speaking of bringing more attention and prestige to the Fortress, Les and Evy Kinnear, owners of the facility, proposed getting me back and having me work on their marketing/educational/fundraising projects. These would include pamphlets, educational materials for schools and visitors, community fundraisers, etc. My head is already swirling with a million ideas and I've dug up contact info for big-name people who could be in a position to offer, or help procure, donations. This will likely depend upon available income during the tourist season this summer and would be something that would have to start small and gradually build itself up, so I'm trying not to let my ideas get too far ahead of me. I have put together a rough draft 2012 calendar of the Fortress but I'm waiting to get a printed copy before I decide if I'm happy with the results or not. Digital pictures to prints can be iffy.

In the midst of all this, I hope to be able to make a personal trip to Glacier National Park in August for the anniversary of the Night of the Grizzlies. It's up in the air if I can work that one in or not but I certainly want to try. There's nothing critical to be gained from it, aside from the opportunity to see a place that's had some kind of strange meaning to me for a very long time, but being there at that specific time feels like a spiritual matter and I need to resolve it.

I've also long toyed with the idea of adapting this blog into book form. I doubt it would be anything really major or involved but the market for bear books is high and it's a critical time, so I want to throw my voice into the mix in a bigger way. I've been on the verge of slapping something together the last couple of months but now I'm inclined to wait in case the research project and the trip to Glacier pan out. Both of those, especially the latter, would be valuable to the text.

As for the blog, I have some book reviews coming soon, as I've recently added to my bear book library, and I've been trying to give some direction and substance to a post of late-night ramblings and musings that I slapped together. Maybe that one will be coming soon.

All in all, 2012 could be an exciting year and may take things to a much higher level than before. As always, anything new and interesting will be posted here. Until then, have a safe and happy new year!