Park Faces People-Bear Dilemma Tragic Man-Grizzly Encounter in Glacier Park Highlights the Animal's Shrinking Habitat

By Kathy Davis Kramer, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

Park Faces People-Bear Dilemma Tragic Man-Grizzly Encounter in Glacier Park Highlights the Animal's Shrinking Habitat


Kathy Davis Kramer, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. Destroying 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? …

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