Friday, February 6, 2015

Death of the West Glacier Black Bear

       The West Glacier black bear. Photo by Marcel Vrab, July 2013.

Okay, it's been waaay too long since I've updated this blog. I apologize for that. I've been meaning to post all summer but the topic at heart has been a difficult one and I've been grappling with it for awhile and trying to decide how to approach it. I feel like it's now or never.

I returned to West Glacier for the summer of 2014. I hadn't intended to but ended up doing it anyway and a large part of the reason why is because of the West Glacier black bear. I've written a lot in the past about this extraordinary animal and the mutual curiosity he and I had for each other, which you can read about in the post below this one. After the incredible experiences I had with this animal in the summer of 2013, I couldn't wait to find him again and see what would happen this time around.

I arrived in West Glacier the first week of June but didn't expect him to show that early. The morning of my first full day back, I spent 40 minutes watching a grizzly graze on dandelions outside my cabin and took it as a sign that good things were in store for the season. As June moved into July and the huckleberry and gooseberry crop bloomed, the bear still did not show and I began to worry. Twice I had very strange dreams about him: one in which I was walking the road to the old bridge when he came out of the woods, walked up to me, and put his nose in my hand and another in which he walked up to the screen door of my cabin and sat there looking in as I sat in a chair in the living room looking back at him. The sense of a great distance between us in that dream was eerie and it left me uncomfortable. Late at night I would lie in bed and listen for the sounds of his presence outside but the nights were disturbingly quiet. I began to fear the worst.

Those fears were confirmed in August when the maintenance man for the West Glacier Mercantile told me the bear had been shot the previous winter. Apparently a year-round resident loved the bear and enjoyed having him around but when he traveled out of state for a vacation and his son flew in long distance to housesit, the son panicked at the sight of the bear walking through the yard and shot him on the spot. An illegal kill, but I highly doubt any action was taken against the man, though some kind certainly should have the very least a hefty fine. After receiving this news, I spent the evening sitting on the beach by the river in front of my cabin feeling sad, heartbroken, angry, and helpless when from out of nowhere a young subadult black bear walked down the beach alongside me, crossed the river, and began foraging on the far bank. This young bear had been around all summer and I had seen him once or twice but his appearance now seemed too perfect to be a coincidence. The bear I had come to know was part of a family line of black bears who have lived in the West Glacier area for decades and this youngster was no doubt one of the latest in that line, maybe even a sibling or cub of the one I had come back to find. To me, it was a sign that even though he may be gone, his spirit still lives. I wanted so badly to run back to the cabin and bring my roommates down to see the bear, but I was so overcome with emotion that it was a long time before I could pull it together enough to tear myself away from what I was seeing.

        Subadult black bear the night I learned of the West Glacier bear's death.

In the time following, West Glacier lost all of its magic for me. The place no longer seemed alive knowing  its greatest enigma was gone. Honestly, at that point I couldn't wait to get out of there and I don't know if I could ever go back. For me, this senseless killing was a direct result of everything I had been writing against: needless fear of bears. An animal who was essentially a gentle giant slaughtered onsite just because of what he was. It angers me, it sickens me, and for a time it made me wonder if there was any point in continuing to push a message that seems meant to fall on deaf ears, but now I've redoubled my efforts and decided I can't just leave it at that. I've already started re-working my "An Unusual Friendship: The West Glacier Bear" article (see the post below) to include the circumstances of his death and what we can learn about respecting and living with bears from that. I'm thinking of also updating my book with the inclusion of these events and even writing a screenplay about a young boy being sent to Montana and befriending a wild black bear. Allowing him and his fate to speak for the future of all bears, I think, is the best way to prevent his death from being in vain and to keep him alive and forever working his unique magic.

I think now of the dreams I had about him early in the season before I ever knew of his fate - dreams that seemed to hint at his fate - and I wonder: were they really only dreams or was he there to meet me after all?

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