Learning to Let the Wild Be Wild in Yellowstone

Part one of our series on the iconic national park examines the challenge of managing nature.

On August 7, 2015, in Yellowstone National Park, a ranger found the chewed-upon body of a man near a hiking trail not far from one of the park’s largest hotels. The deceased was soon identified as Lance Crosby, 63 years old, from Billings, Montana. He had worked seasonally as a nurse at a medical clinic in the park and been reported missing by co-workers that morning.

Investigation revealed that Crosby was hiking alone on the previous day, without bear spray, and ran afoul of a female grizzly with two cubs. The sow, after killing and partially eating him (not necessarily in that order), and allowing the cubs to eat too, cached his remains beneath dirt and pine duff, as grizzlies do when they intend to reclaim a piece of meat. Once trapped and persuasively linked to Crosby by DNA evidence, she was given a sedative and an anesthetic and then executed, on grounds that an adult grizzly bear that has eaten human flesh and cached a body is too dangerous to be spared, even if the fatal encounter wasn’t her fault. “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim,” said Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, a reasonable man charged with a difficult task: keeping Yellowstone safe for both people and wildlife. 

Lance Crosby’s death was just the seventh bear-caused fatality in the park during the past hundred years. The next most recent occurred in the summer of 2011, when two people died in separate events, possibly killed by a single female grizzly. After the first killing, of a man named Brian Matayoshi, the bear had been spared by Wenk—with advice from bear managers—on grounds that she was defending her cubs and the attack on Matayoshi wasn’t predatory. Because the Matayoshi killing occurred on the Wapiti Lake trail, she became known as the Wapiti sow. Later she turned up near the second victim, a man named John Wallace, who died eight miles away in what might have been a predatory attack. Wallace’s body, like Lance Crosby’s, had been partially eaten and then cached. Physical evidence didn’t prove that the Wapiti sow had killed him but strongly suggested that she had at least fed on the body, and so she was put down. The sorry events of 2011, and that well-meant choice to give the Wapiti sow a reprieve after Matayoshi’s death, help explain the decision to condemn the 2015 sow after one incident.

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