YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming "Jack-booted executioner" is not a title that Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk ever aspired to own. But as a torrent of emails and phone calls began flooding his office last week—most from wildlife lovers in a desperate attempt to keep a mother grizzly bear alive—Wenk was given that label, and far worse.
Even legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, who has become a huge fan of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, reached out to Wenk from her home in Bournemouth, England, pleading with him to spare a sow whose tragic encounter with a hiker had elevated her into the realm of international cause célèbre.
"In my 40 years working for the National Park Service, I have never encountered anything like the emotional outpouring we received in response to the fate of this bear," Wenk said, acknowledging that members of his staff were also left shell-shocked.
The chain of events started when Lance Crosby, a 63-year-old man from Billings, Montana, who was working in Yellowstone as a medic for the summer, was found dead on August 7 near the Elephant Back Loop Trail, which wends along a mountain slope above Yellowstone Lake’s western shore in the center of the park. He'd been fatally mauled and partially eaten by a grizzly and her cubs.
Initial reports from investigators, later corroborated by DNA tests and other forensic evidence, indicated that Crosby had been attacked as he hiked off trail. Notably, he carried no pepper spray, an effective deterrent against aggressive bears.
After Crosby went missing, searchers found his partially eaten body under a mound of dirt. Bears typically kill prey and cache it for later consumption.
The looming question—still unresolved—is why it happened. Was the bear a true man-eater in the most menacing sense of the word?
A Judge in Bear Court
The park superintendent found himself suddenly cast in the role of the lone judge of a popular animal that had never before caused serious problems but was facing a death sentence.
Wenk told me this week that evidence and consultation with bear-management specialists led him, on August 14, to take the controversial action of having the suspected mother bear destroyed and her cubs sent to the Toledo Zoo.
"We announced in our first press release that if it was shown that the victim had been fed upon, we planned to likely euthanize the bear," he said.
During the seven days when the fate of the bruin—nicknamed "Blaze" by wildlife photographers for the streak of white fur on her muscled back—was being determined, public interest went viral.
Fanned by social media, the outpouring of concern over Wenk's decision echoed the uproar earlier this summer over the illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American trophy hunter.
Among the thousands who weighed in, many argued that hikers in Yellowstone trek at their own risk in a park known to be the domain of grizzlies, and if they die from a run-in, no harm should come to the bear. Others rallied to the defense of the victim, who even in death came under withering criticism for his lack of caution, and demanded that the bear be put down.
Caught in the ferocious crossfire of accusations was Wenk, the chief administrator in Yellowstone since 2011, known for being a strong advocate for wildlife. Famed conservationist Doug Peacock condemned Wenk, saying that at the very least, Blaze should have been turned loosed with a radio collar around her neck. Tracking her movements would alleviate fears that she might kill again. Wenk counters that such an option is impractical and provides no assurance of safety.
A Cautionary Tale
Wenk isn’t speaking in the abstract.
Only a few years ago, he spared another mother grizzly in Yellowstone just as those advocating for Blaze were demanding he do last week. In 2011, a sow with cubs, known to researchers as the Wapiti grizzly, killed a hiker named Brian Matayoshi. Upon encountering the bears, Matayoshi and his wife had made the unfortunate decision to run, inciting the grizzly to charge in pursuit and attack.
While his wife looked on in horror, Matayoshi died. But the sow did not eat him. Since the bear appeared to have acted in a manner typical of a sow accompanied by cubs, Wenk made the decision to let the Wapiti grizzly and its offspring live.
But two months later along a trail in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley, eight miles away, a lone hiker named John Wallace was killed and his body partially consumed. DNA evidence demonstrated conclusively that the Wapiti grizzly and one of her cubs had been present at both encounters. More than half a dozen different grizzlies fed on Wallace.
Wenk came under enormous public criticism from those who claimed he'd favored the lives of bears over public safety, and he nearly lost his job.
"I was comfortable when I made the decision to let the Wapiti grizzly live after that first encounter, and I am confident we made the right decision with the bear in this latest incident," he told me.
Upon hearing the details of those agonizing events in 2011, Jane Goodall reluctantly said she understood the rationale of Wenk’s decision. If tragedy repeated itself and another park visitor was killed by Blaze, the repercussions—likely including a rebuke from lawmakers unsympathetic to grizzlies—could result in more public fear and less tolerance for roadside grizzlies in Yellowstone.
"All I know is that once a bear discovers a source of food, it never forgets," said David Mattson, a retired researcher best known for his decades of work with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team in Yellowstone. He noted that if the mother bear identified people as a food source, she might also teach that behavior to her impressionable cubs.
"As much as I’m devoted to keeping bears alive and advocating for the reality that hiking through grizzly country carries risks," he said, "I understand Wenk’s decision to err on the side of caution."
A Critical Time
The incident comes at a pivotal moment in bear-human relations in the region. Later this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to formally announce its intent to take the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population off the federal list of threatened species and hand custodial management of bears over to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
Those states also are expected to announce their intention to recommence trophy sport hunting of grizzlies, which had been suspended in 1974, shortly before declining numbers put the population in management triage.
Restoration of grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone region is considered one of the greatest feats in American conservation history. During the early 1980s, grizzly numbers had dipped to fewer than 200, and they continued to fall. Aggressive management action over decades focused on keeping bears out of trash, reducing deaths caused by humans, and doing everything possible to keep female bears of reproductive age with cubs alive. Those actions yielded a population that today is estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 grizzlies.
Mother bears with cubs are the most important segment of bear demography. Losing even a small percentage of sows and cubs every year can mean the difference between a rising and a declining population. One of the biggest consequences is lost reproductive potential.
A compelling reference point is the story of 19-year-old Jackson Hole grizzly 399, a bear that has millions of followers around the globe. Nearly a decade ago, 399 and three cubs mauled a hiker near Jackson Lake at the foot of the Teton Range. The decision was made to let the family live. Over the course of her life, 399 has produced 15 bears (her own cubs and the second-generation offspring). Sadly, three-quarters of her descendants have died, most of them following encounters with humans—struck by cars, killed illegally by big game hunters, removed for preying on cattle, or euthanized for venturing too close to human development.
From Heartbreak, a Way Forward
The sow that was destroyed last week in Yellowstone was roughly 399's age and had produced several other cubs besides the two that were with her in that fateful encounter.
"There's no way to reconstruct what took place out there on Elephant Back," says Steve Primm, a scientist working for People and Carnivores, an organization that tries to reduce conflict between humans and bears. "The very few facts available to us are just a few pieces of a puzzle: a lone hiker, with no means of self defense, bumped into a mother grizzly and her cubs. Were the grizzlies' actions purely predatory, or was it a defensive attack that turned lethal? If it was the latter, should we be surprised that she then fed on the hiker's body?"
Primm says that playing the parlor game of judging after the fact or demonizing Wenk serves no purpose. "Instead, maybe we need to look at each other and ask why this hurts so bad,” he says. "In that deep heartbreak, there is a signal … The only wholesome thing to do with those emotions now is to channel them into some attainable improvements in how we act in this place and with these grizzlies."
For Wenk, another eye-opening lesson was how social media enabled nature-loving humans to turn up the volume of their concern. In his office, I asked him how he felt about the public opinion expressed against his decision.
"I mean this with all sincerity, but I accept that it comes with the territory," he said. "I'm grateful that Yellowstone arouses such strong passions in people, that they feel compelled to express their concerns about a grizzly bear. With so many things in society, there is a plague of apathy. I'm touched by how much so many people care about this place. It shows how much Yellowstone and grizzlies still matter."
Todd Wilkinson is an environmental journalist. His most recent book is Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone, with photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Follow him on Twitter @bigartnature.