Park Faces People-Bear Dilemma
Tragic man-grizzly encounter in Glacier Park highlights the animal's shrinking habitat
WHITEFISH, MONT. — A RECENT tragedy in Montana's Glacier National Park dramatizes the challenges the park system faces in coping with more visitors, less funding, and a reduction in wildlife habitat.
This fall, one of the worst grizzly-bear attacks ever occurred in the park. One hiker and three bears died. This event highlights the increasing number of human-bear encounters as grizzly-bear habitat continues to shrink in the lower 48 states. While day-hiking on the Loop Trail, about a half-mile below Granite Park Chalet, John Petranyi of Madison, Wis., was mauled to death and partially eaten by a female grizzly and her two yearling cubs.
Glacier Park Chief Ranger Steve Frye says Mr. Petranyi was "an experienced back-country hiker." He says the decision to destroy the bears, which were located by park rangers and shot eight days later about a mile from the attack, came after consulting state and federal bear experts on the subject.
Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear recovery coordinator for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Richard Knight, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, were among the government experts who concurred with the park officials' decision to destroy the bears.
Mr. Servheen says, "We don't tolerate those types of aggressive bears. It's dangerous and it's teaching its cubs things and that's not the type of animal that we tolerate in grizzly habitat." He says he believed that the cubs were "a lost cause" and must be destroyed because "...they learn everything from the mother."
Investigation of the bears' carcasses after they were shot gave no clue to the reason for the attack. The female was a healthy 300-pound grizzly and the cubs, at 75 pounds, were healthy and stable as well.
Since park officials have in the past opted not to destroy bears who have mauled hikers, this decision met with mixed reactions. Mr. Frye says park headquarters received numerous calls after the decision to destroy the bears.
"About 70 percent of the callers favored allowing the bears to live and about 30 percent wanted them destroyed," Frye says.
ALTHOUGH Glacier Park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt reported in local newspapers that all bear authorities agreed with the decision to destroy the bears, other reports indicate differently.
Charles Jonkel, longtime bear authority and director of the Ursid Research Center and the Border Grizzly Project, both private research organizations, says Frye telephoned him a day after the hunt for the bears had begun. "I told Steve that there was no historical biological evidence to support their premise that the bears would link killing the victim with feeding on him. Grizzlies do not have a predator-prey relationship with man.... I urged him to call off the hunt and leave the bears alone. Destroyin g the bears was a biologically unsound decision.
"The park is getting better about managing the bears, but this action was a step backward. I think park officials succumbed to political pressure," Dr. Jonkel concludes.
"I disagree," counters Mr. Knight. "I think bears are very smart and learn about new food sources quickly. There's no guarantee they would have preyed on people again, but it was best not to take a chance with human life."
Many bear advocates are concerned that this encounter is a bad omen for the grizzly. Mary McFarland, longtime resident of Whitefish, Mont., says, "When you have more people, you have more trouble. Years ago we never had problems in the park because the bears didn't run into people. They didn't like the human smell. Now there are so many people, the bears can't avoid them."
Some express concern that this incident foreshadows what will happen to the bears on a grander scale. If the grizzly isn't fully protected in the national park system, they reason, how will it survive in the remaining habitat areas outside park boundaries?
As grizzly-bear habitat continues to shrink, wildlife managers and environmentalists predict more human-bear encounters.
"We had 2.2 million visitors in Glacier this year," Frye says. "And we've noticed a new trend. People are seeking more solitary areas off the beaten path in the park than they used to. Grizzlies can't live on an island, so we must maintain habitat outside the park system where they can move freely. Bears just don't understand administrative boundaries."
Bears aren't the only problem. Tourists often fail to adhere to park rules or do not believe that the bears are dangerous. Park literature advises against hiking alone, being careless with food and fires, and approaching bears. But visitors in search of the great wildlife photo often do not follow park officials' advice.
Four hikers, who had been warned not to proceed on the trail because of the attack, failed to heed the warnings. They continued their hike and were blocked by a grizzly on the trail. They had to be airlifted to safety from the Granite Park Chalet. Such encounters inadvertently get people and bears killed. As Jonkel laments, "The bear always loses."
Mike Bader, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a group of more than 200 organizations and businesses throughout the northern Rockies with a mission to protect the remaining wild lands by using an ecosystem approach, brought the grizzly-habitat problem further into perspective.
"This was another situation where there are too many people crowding into ever-shrinking bear habitat," Mr. Bader says. "We must consider closing large segments of bear habitat on a seasonal basis.... The bears are stretched to the limit this year with a food shortage. When managers know it's a poor food year, they need to be more flexible and make unpopular decisions to close areas for the bears. The grizzly is down to less than 1 percent of its original habitat in the lower 48 states and pressure on th at area must be relieved if they are going to survive."
The failure of Congress to pass a Montana wilderness bill before it recently recessed has created an opportunity for Bader and his group. They support a bioregional approach that calls for a 13-million-acre, five-state wilderness bill, which they will take to Congress next January.
"The people want our last, remaining wild places left wild," Bader says. Such an approach would have obvious benefits for the grizzly.
Glacier Park Superintendent Gil Lusk says there are two options: Either give the bears more room or permit extinction by decreasing their habitat.
"The bears need a wider area in all directions," Mr. Lusk says. "Man-bear encounters will increase outside the park as well, if we don't do some long-range planning on a community level to include the bear."
Although some have criticized park management for not closing the trails to hikers, especially in places like Granite Park, where grizzlies are known to frequent the area, both Lusk and Frye say that park management strives to balance needs of both visitors and bears.
"We don't always know where the bears are," Frye says. "If we close trails, people get upset."
Jonkel counters by saying, "I have been warning agency officials and the public since May that this was a very unusual food year for bears. All summer I have asked them to do special things for the bear and be especially careful. In the fall, bears are feeding intensely, and dangers to man are high. In view of this, I can't imagine why the trail was open. This incident didn't have to happen."
Shawn Riley, wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, says the recent grizzly killings in Glacier bring the known 1992 death toll to 12 grizzlies in the northwest part of the state. With the exception of one road kill and one bear killed by a train, the others were destroyed for being problem bears, that is, frequenting areas commonly used by humans.
Land development looms large as a contender for the bears' space. Whitefish, a community of about 5,000 less than an hour from the park, has been experiencing rapid growth. Real estate agents have doubled in number and housing prices have soared.
In addition, the Big Mountain Ski Resort, owned and operated by Winter Sports Inc., is moving on an aggressive plan to develop residential communities and a summer resort on the Big Mountain.
The Big Mountain is an integral part of the Whitefish Range, an area of diverse wildlife habitat and a key segment of the corridor grizzly bears use to move to and from Glacier National Park.
Frye sums up the dilemma, "I think the grizzly's future will be determined by our commitment to maintaining habitat outside the park system. We can't guarantee the bears will stay within our boundaries. Sustaining the bears is an achievable goal that requires long-term compromise and commitment. This doesn't come cheap. We must begin to accept the expense."