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  • Louisa Willcox

Reflections on a Yellowstone grizzly tragedy

Two weeks ago, in Yellowstone National Park the tragic deaths of Lance Crosby, and a 20 year grizzly mother named Blaze captured national attention. Although Blaze was killed, her two cubs were sent to a zoo – a turn of events that speaks to the passionate connection that people from all over the world made with her and her family.

The outpouring of public sympathy for Cecil the lion and Blaze and her cubs suggests we may be seeing a sea change in our relationship with wild animals. In over 30 years of endangered species advocacy, I have never seen such spontaneous uproars over the lives of wild animals. The voices supporting protection of animals killed for doing what they do in their last refuges are authentic, raw and fierce as the animals themselves. They are challenging the frame of dominance and control over nature, codified in current management systems and government plans to allow trophy hunting of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. They are calling for restraint and respect.

The incident in Yellowstone involved a man who appears to have been moving fast in dense brush, off trail, alone and without bear pepper spray, not far from developments around Yellowstone Lake in the heart of the Park. Female grizzly bears are famous for their ferocious defense of their young, and Blaze was probably no exception. The outcome of this perfect storm of factors was terrible for all involved.

Public outcry in support of these bears made the government pause, and ultimately changed the treatment of the cubs. Not very long ago, officials would not likely have given the cubs’ fate much thought.

Interestingly, visitors in and around the Park did not freak out. People who were interviewed by journalists expressed the view that Yellowstone was the bear’s home and that visitors need to come prepared to accommodate the bears that live there – suggesting that as a society we have come a long way since 1967 and the hysterical response to “Night of the Grizzly”, marked by the death of three people killed by grizzlies in Glacier National Park.

In the midst of all this, it was surprising to read that Matt Brown, reporting for the Associated Press, attributed the recent fatality to an increased numbers of bears, and NBC uncritically quoted Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk saying that the three most recent human fatalities from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area were due to “more people on trails and more grizzly bears.”

Do the facts about Yellowstone’s bears support these assertions, and if not, what are the implications? Let’s look at the evidence, mostly compiled by the federal government. The grizzly population has not grown since the early 2000s, and most likely has been declining since 2007, after a key food, whitebark pine, had collapsed from a climate-driven outbreak of lethal bark beetles (see link). Cub and yearling survival rates have dropped dramatically too, probably because of a shift in grizzly bear diets. Further, all of the human fatalities during the last 10 years caused by grizzly bears have occurred in the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where densities of grizzly bears have not increased during the last 15 years.

The data suggests that growth in the bear population and human visitation had nothing to do with the death of Lance Crosby or the other unfortunates who were killed by grizzly bears.

What was behind these assertions? A likely explanation is the justification of "control" of the population under the rubric of human safety, fueled by paranoia and an uncritical alignment with the agenda of sport hunters and state wildlife management agencies (see link). Indeed more “control” (read killing) is what will happen if the government removes protections offered by the federal Endangered Species Act later this year. Delisting and the implicit agenda of arranging to kill more bears has been seen as a “prize” by government officials for decades (see link).

Contrary to the hopes of our Founding Fathers, the media increasingly gives huge deference to officials with authority, who also promote the agenda of delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. A central figure in this dynamic is Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear “Recovery” Coordinator Chris Servheen, who, since his appointment, has, according to federal data, personally authorized that killing of Blaze and almost 200 other grizzly bears that committed much more benign offences. More problematic for those who care about our democratic society, he is notoriously punitive with reporters if they do not give his (pro-delisting) side of the story. He is an expert at aversive conditioning.

There are other reasons why the much-diminished Press tends to cover incidents such as the deaths of Crosby and Blaze superficially, and often in a one-sided and acontextual fashion. These issues are complex scientifically, culturally, socially, and philosophically (see link). Most reporters don’t have the time, motivation, background, or word allowance to dig deeply. Budgets for in-depth reporting are a thing of the past.

Consistent with the response to Blaze and her cubs, the public overwhelmingly opposes delisting, evident in hundreds of thousands of comments on the topic over several decades. Yet the Press does not cover this important context, which is apparently of little interest, predates most cub reporters, and constitutes a threat to accessing The Powers That Be.

Nor does the Press give more than cursory reference to the major threats from climate change, human-related development of bear habitat, and 100 years of isolation from other grizzly bear populations. The fact is that in less than two decades, key bear foods have collapsed as a result of climate change and drought. Of the four foods that provided in excess of 80% of the bears’ nutrients and energy, two--whitebark pine and cutthroat trout –have been virtually disappeared. (see link). And, all but one population of elk, another key grizzly bear food, has tanked, largely as a result of climate change and harvest by human sport hunters. Thus, as grizzlies desperately run to other food sources, it is no surprise that conflicts with livestock and big game hunters have skyrocketed. (see link) – another unreported fact.

If we are to have a healthy and informed debate about our future relations with the grizzly bear and other wildlife, the Press needs to fulfill the mission bequeathed to this institution by our Founding Fathers—to question those in power, report the facts, and offer people essential context. Deferring to government officials with political agendas does not serve the broader public interest or a healthy democracy.

Democracy depends too on the level of public engagement. If we demand deeper compassion for bears such as Blaze and her cubs, as well as a different relationship with animals and the natural world, we can prevent more killing. We can stand up to the Government’s delisting agenda, which is really an agenda of death. Management of our irreplaceable wildlife CAN be based on respect and reverence, rather domination and control. The choice is ours.

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