Yellowstone: Wild Heart of a Continent

It's more than just a park. It's a place where, 140 years ago, we began to negotiate a peace treaty with the wild.

On August 7, 2015, a ranger found the chewed-upon body of a man near a hiking trail in Yellowstone National Park, not far from one of the park’s largest hotels. The deceased was soon identified as Lance Crosby, 63, 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.

Grizzly bears, clearly, can be dangerous animals. But the danger they represent should be seen in perspective. Lance Crosby’s death was just the seventh bear-caused fatality in the park during the past hundred years. In the 144 years since Yellowstone was established, more people have died there of drowning and of scalding in thermal pools, and of suicide, than have been killed by bears. Almost as many people have died from lightning strikes. Two people have been killed by bison.

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