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Yellowstone Traps 'Killer' Grizzly, Faces Criticism For Plans To Kill It

Grizzly Bear advocate Doug Peacock penned the letter asking President Obama to retain endangered species protections for Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
Eric Whitney

Yellowstone National Park's response to the death of Montana man while hiking in the park late last week is drawing criticism.

The park says, based on its preliminary investigation, it appears the man was attacked by an adult female grizzly bear and perhaps one of her cubs. The bear was captured Friday and will be killed, the park says, "to protect public safety," if it is determined to have been involved in the hiker's death. 

That decision brought dozens of negative comments to Yellowstone's Facebook page, and criticism from Montana resident Doug Peacock, who has spent decades studying grizzly bears and has written two books about his experiences with them.

"This is not a predator-prey situation," Peacock says. 

Based on the facts Yellowstone has released, the public safety argument for killing the bear appears specious to him. 

"This is a defensive reaction, a natural reaction, by mothers who feel their cubs are threatened. It is not predator-prey, those are so rare. I'm not saying they don't happen."

In a park press release about the incident, Superintendent Dan Wenk says, quote, “we may not be able to conclusively determine the circumstances of this bear attack, but we will not risk public safety.”

The park has said the man who was killed was, quote, “partially consumed.” Among the comments on Yellowstone's Facebook page supporting the park's decision to kill the bear are those saying that, once a grizzly bear consumes human flesh, it will start to identify humans as a food source and attack again.

"That again is BS," Peacock says. "There's not an ounce of data in the world that supports that, that once a grizzly tastes human blood they're insatiably after it again. There's not any data that supports that, and it doesn't make common sense either."

The Park Service appears to agree with Peacock on that point. A post from Yellowstone National Park on its Facebook page Sunday, says, “We don't know of any formal studies showing that predatory attacks will be repeated. Most land management agencies remove bears that consume people due to safety concerns.”

Doug Peacock says the park could come up with a better response than killing the bear:

"Do nothing," he says, "close the area down. Keep your traps and your helicopters out of there. This happens in the the wilderness. We don't want our wilderness all safe and non-risky. We want the element of risk out there, that's a valuable element. It creates humility in human beings, which is exactly what we need most these days.

"The only way to ensure public safety is to get rid of all the bears out there," Peacock says. "A grizzly bear is a risky proposition, that's what it is, it's not going to be anything else. And the government isn't going to go for that any more than you and I would. I wish they'd save their money and their effort, close the area down, and just let it dissipate."

Yellowstone National Park has closed down the Elephant Back Loop Trail near Lake Village where the hiker's body was found last Friday. An investigation is ongoing. An autopsy for the man is scheduled for today. The park has not yet released his name pending notification of his family, but they have described him as an experienced hiker who lived inside the park for five seasons and who worked at the urgent care clinic in Lake Village run by a private contractor called MedCor.

We'll have more on this story as it develops.

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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