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Yellowstone Superintendent Explains Grizzly Killing Decision

Jim Peaco, via YNP
This Yellowstone National Park photo shows a grizzly bear on Swan Lake Flat

Yellowstone National Park has identified the hiker who is believed to have been killed by a grizzly bear late last week. Park Superintendent Dan Wenk says he was from Billings.

"Lance Crosby was an employee of Medcor, our concession facility that provides medical services here in the park.  (He was) 63 years old, had been in the park with Medcor for approximately 5 years" Wenk said.

Wenk says it's still unclear exactly what happened to Crosby when he went hiking on the popular Elephant Back Loop trail near Lake Village on the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake.

"The first appearance is, that would be all the indications is, that he was killed by a grizzly bear.  However, we are collecting evidence from the site, starting Friday afternoon, soon after he was discovered.  We have collected samples from his body, DNA samples from hair or saliva that was from a bear.  We have now captured a bear, an adult female that was in the area.  We're also now collecting samples from her.  We're having those tested to determine if the bear that we have captured was the bear that was involved with the death of Mr. Crosby" Wenk said.

Wenk says the park has actually captured both an adult female grizzly and one of her cubs. It is believe the bear had two cubs. Results of the DNA tests that could link the bears to the attack are expected back by end of day Tuesday. And if the tests show the bears that have been captured were involved in the attack?

"Based on everything I know to date, the adult female will be euthanized, and we'll be looking for placement for this cub and hopefully the other cub when we catch it" Wenk said.

I asked Wenk to explain why it is Yellowstone Park policy to capture and kill bears that are involved in attacks on people.

"I think there's a few things," Wenk replied.  "Number one, we work very hard to manage Yellowstone for not only the preservation of the resources, which is paramount, but also for visitor use and enjoyment and safety.  The decision to euthanize this bear will be made in the context of an overall bear program, not just one bear but how do we make sure we have an effective, long-lasting program that is going to be in the best interest of the grizzly bear population overall, in conjunction with visitor use, visitor enjoyment, and visitor safety.  So that's the framework where those decisions are made.  The decisions are also made under a prism, if you will, of long-term public interest, not short-term public interest." 

I asked Wenk if there is scientific evidence that grizzlies that have attacked humans once are more likely to do so again, or are necessarily any more dangerous than other bears.

"I don't think we have that.  We cannot tell you that we have that evidence that that happens." Wenk replied. "Typically if we've had a situation where a bear has partially consumed a human, we remove that bear from the population so we do not know if that bear then has a propensity to do that again."

Kerry Gunther is the bear management biologist for Yellowstone National Park.

"Normally in a defensive attack, where a bear defends itself against a perceived threat, and then leaves, we don't do anything to the bear at all." Gunther said.  "We usually close the area for a while.  In cases where a person is actually killed and consumed, we don't have scientific evidence that the bear will do it again, but we don't want to take that chance, and we don't think the public wants for us to use them as the experiment. So, we don't want bears to learn humans as a food source, and so we have always removed the bear if we were able to catch it."

I pressed Wenk on exactly what goes into a decision to kill a bear involved in an attack on a person in the park. Several critics of the decision in this case have noted that the victim apparently was not following bear safety precautions – specifically he was hiking alone, off of an established trail and was not carrying bear repellant spray. Those critics say that under those circumstances, it's wrong to kill a bear for acting naturally, and perhaps in defense of her cubs.

"It's an incredibly difficult decision," Wenk said. "And I'm going to go back to 2011, when we made the decision initially not to remove the bear that was involved in the first death in the park because we had eyewitnesses to that account and we knew what happened, we knew why it happened, and we understood the circumstances that surrounded it, we made a decision not to remove that bear.

"For everyone who's advocating for the preservation of this bear, there were an equal number of voices who were basically telling me at that time that bear should be removed.  (They said) how dare I make that decision, just as the outcry today.  

"There's a lot of assumptions that are being made today about what happened.  We don't know what happened.  The assumptions that are being made is that it was a defensive tack, that someone got between a mother and her cubs.  We don't know that that's what happened.  Unfortunately we'll probably never know the full circumstances of that event.  

"I'm not sure how we can easily say if the following seven things are evident in a situation, the bear is euthanized.  If only two of those seven are there, the bear's not euthanized.  So it's not that clear-cut of a decision-making process.  It's a process that we really have to consider the recommendations of a wildlife biologist, our grizzly bear experts, me as a manager of the park, in terms of our responsibilities to the basic mission of Yellowstone which is preservation and use of this park."

Dan Wenk is the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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