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The Fragility of Grizzlies

For those of us who care about the fate of the grizzly bear, for those who love to see grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park and its outer ecosystem, Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith is an important chronicle of the bear’s recent history and how we almost lost him.

Many do not know that it was Yellowstone Park Superintendent Jack Anderson and Yellowstone’s chief biologist Glen Cole who almost brought Yellowstone grizzlies to extinction following the 1967 maulings in Glacier National Park known as The Night of the Grizzlies. The reaction to the night of August 13th, when two women were mauled to death in two separate incidents by grizzly bears, led to the quick closing of Yellowstone dump sites. The closings were over the objections of Frank and John Craighead.

The Craighead brothers had been conducting the first in-depth grizzly study in the Park. In an 11 year continuous study beginning in 1959, the brothers invented the first radio collars, collaring and ear-tagging 256 bears in the Park during that time. Their study shed light on where grizzlies denned, the size of their home ranges, and how bears homed back to where they were captured. From the results of their research, the Craigheads proposed the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—linking Yellowstone, Grand Teton, five national forests, and two national wildlife refuges into a single landscape. It was apparent to them that the boundaries of the Park itself were not sufficient to protect nor contain the food sources and wanderings of grizzlies.

Craighead Brothers move a grizzly (NPS photo)

While Anderson and Cole wanted to immediately close all the Yellowstone dumps, the Craigheads, knowing these bears had grown up adapted to receiving food rewards and understanding the bears better than anyone, advocated for a slow change-over, dropping road killed carcasses at the Trout Creek dump site. In other words, a slow wean rather than cold turkey. In the end, the Craigheads were right. Without the additional food sources of the dumps, the bears began heading into campgrounds, rummaging for food. At that time campers were not protecting their food, nor were there bear-proof cans provided. Everything happened too fast. Rangers were employed to kill problem bears and the bear population crashed to below 150 bears. Since bear reproduction is extremely slow, even after the bears had been on the Endangered Species list for ten years in the mid-1980s, most scientists thought the Yellowstone grizzly would soon be extinct. By 1990, the Greater Yellowstone grizzly population had dipped to 99 bears. Slowly, it began to creep back up to present day estimates of about 750 bears.

Engineering Eden uses as its focal a lawsuit trial centered around the death of a young man named Harry Walker. Walker was passing through Yellowstone in 1972 with a friend. They camped about a mile outside the designated campgrounds in Old Faithful, left their food out, set up a tent, then went back to the lodge for the evenings entertainment. Trying to find their way back to camp after midnight on a moonless night, Walker was mauled and killed by a grizzly who’d found their food. The family sued the United States government, and in a high profile case, Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, testified as an expert witness for the government while Frank Craighead testified for the family. Smith uses the trial, going forward and backward in time, to bring to light all the events surrounding the case, even discussing black bears in Yosemite that were also garbage bears.

If you don’t know about The Night of the Grizzlies, there’s a Montana PBS special worth watching, or a short but excellent book by Jack Olsen. Yet it is worth recapping that night since this was the spark that ignited what followed in Yellowstone.

The two fatal incidents occurred on the night of August 12, 1967, two different bears, separated by eight miles and a formidable mountain named Heavens Peak. Since the Park’s creation in 1910 there had not been a single fatal encounter with a grizzly bar. So these two attacks on the same night raised a lot of controversy.  But they were actually a long time in the making which included other non-fatal maulings that had occurred in Glacier. Food dumps and trash from the growing number of visitors attracted bears, black and grizzly, for years. Granite Park Chalet, the site of one of the maulings, had been dumping garbage just 200 yards from the building. The year before, the Park Service provided an incinerator, but the sheer volume of visitors created more trash than could be burned nightly. Plus, the nightly arrival of grizzlies was a tourist attraction that was coveted. The dumping continued.

With a long term drought depressing the berry crop, critical food for grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide, bears had grown particularly dependent on these dumps. At Trout Lake, on the other side of the Livingston Range, one bear in particular had been trouble throughout the summer. She was old, underweight, and unafraid of humans. That summer there were reports of this old female marauding campers and campsites, even confronting them while on horseback. She had been hanging around a private outfit called Kelly’s Camp at the head of McDonald Lake getting into their garbage. Yet no action was taken by the Park Service. Things were different in those days and with no grizzly bear major incidents since the Park’s opening, policies were lax.

Michele Koons had hiked into Trout Lake earlier in the day with a few friends. This bear had come into their campsite earlier and they drove her off. The group then moved their site closer to the lake and built a large bonfire. At 4 a.m. the bear returned, sniffing out their sleeping bags. Although her companions escaped up trees, Michele, unable to slip out of her bag, was carried into the woods. With first light, Koons’ companions hiked out to the McDonald Ranger Station to report the mauling.  When the rangers found her body, it was mauled beyond recognition.

“Trout Lake was typical of all the other campgrounds at that time in Glacier National Park,” said Bert Gildart, the ranger who responded to the grizzly attack at Trout Lake in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune in 2017.  “I think all the campgrounds in Glacier National Park were a mess. When the chief ranger and I flew back in there a few weeks later, we picked up an immense number, probably 17 burlap sacks we loaded into a Huey helicopter and it was all full of garbage that people had left behind.”

Meanwhile, since the Granite Park Chalet was over-flowing with visitors the evening of August 11, Julie Helgeson and her boyfriend Roy Ducat decided to camp at the campground 500 yards down the trail. A similar scenario played out, with the grizzly first mauling Ducat in his sleeping bag. When he played dead, the bear turned to Helgeson. Ducat climbed out of the bag he was sharing with Julie, and ran for help as the bear dragged Helgeson down the ravine. A search party found her alive, although she died soon thereafter from excessive loss of blood and shock.

Rangers were dispatched to kill the offending bears. Bert Gildart and Leonard Landa shot the old female at Trout Lake. “It was determined on the spot that this bear had glass embedded in its teeth,” Gildart told the Tribune. “So here you had a bear with difficulty chewing and eating in the first place and as well a bear that was horribly emaciated or run down. It couldn’t eat. It weighed slightly over 200 pounds. It wasn’t a big bear at all. It was about 20 years old, an emaciated sow. That’s the reason why it probably fed on the girl.”

Up at Granite Park Chalet, following the mauling, Ranger David Shea was told to kill any bear that came to their dumpsite. The result was three dead bears, including a sow with two cubs. One cub was shot in the jaw by a second ranger, survived the winter, then killed in the spring when he returned to feed on garbage.

From these two incidents, immediate changes in Glacier policies were initiated. “Pack it in, Pack it out”, backcountry campgrounds were concentrated, cables for hanging food were set up, education programs began. But of course all the cleanup of the backcountry along with de-habituating bears took time.


For years I could not make sense of what happened to my friends and I in Glacier National Park in the summer of 1972. My friends Karen and Sarajo and I had spent our high school free time backpacking with other teenagers and a parent chaperone in the Sierras and high mountains of the San Bernadino forest. We thought of ourselves as pretty experienced. We understood cleaning up our cooking site and hanging our food high in trees. In those days, there wasn’t any freeze-dried backpacking food sold. We brought rice, lentils, and other grains that needed cooking for an hour. Smells wafted through the air. But still, a clean camp could be kept.

That summer my friends and I were on a journey typical of teenagers who had just graduated high school. It was the beginning of the rest of our lives and we were excited. We’d hitchhiked to Waterton Lakes National Park with the intention of a through-hike. We stopped at the visitor center for maps and information. Two Canadian rangers stared at us from behind the counter. When we told them our plans, they both looked genuinely alarmed.

“There’s a 10 mile hike that follows a lake. A ranger station is at the lake’s end. From there you can continue on into the United States. You  know there are bears out there, grizzlies and black?”

“What about grizzlies,” I asked. We knew what to do about black bears, being an abundant nuisance in the California Sierras.

“You have three choices if you encounter one that charges you. You can climb a tree. Grizzlies can’t climb trees. You can drop to the ground and play dead. Lie on your stomach, put your hands behind your neck.”

“What’s the third option,” Karen asked.

“Play chicken. Stand in place and stare him down. More than likely that bear will run and veer off at the last minute. But not a guarantee.”

I didn’t give his advice much second thought, but playing chicken isn’t in my nature. Climbing a tree sounded doable.

We camped at the visitor center campground that night and set out in the morning. Much of the hike paralleled the lakeshore. The day was overcast, drizzling on and off. By early afternoon we found a suitable campsite by the lake, built a small fire in a clearing adjacent to the lake and began to prepare dinner.

Our pot, blackened on the bottom from being set over the open flames, wafted aromas throughout the forest. Although the rain abated during our dinner hour, a dark overcast sky signaled a possible storm, so we set up our tents. Gear in the 1970s was heavy and expensive, and as teenagers we had no extra cash for backpacking tents anyways. Instead we’d brought “tube tents”, $2 tubes of orange plastic that hung on a rope between two trees. A clip held the ends loosely together to keep rain out. It was a lousy system. If you really needed it, condensation might be just as bad as the pouring rain outside. But it held in a light rain.

The clouds were closing in as we finished dinner around the fire. We cleaned up and dutifully hung our food high in a tree. Dusk settled and conversation about our trip and the long day began to flow. In the dimming light, Sarajo spotted something moving in the trees at the clearing’s edge.

“Bear.” 

I looked up to see an enormous black bear lumbering towards our hung food.  He stopped directly under the food sacks, spent some time pondering them, then obviously decided it wasn’t worth the effort to climb the tree and shimmy the branch. Bears don’t see well, I knew this, but he looked like this wasn’t his first food rodeo as he began beelining towards our fire.

In all my backpacking days up till then, I’d never had a bear encounter, but we instinctively knew what to do next. We yelled and grabbed our pots, banging like our life depended on that noise. It was a tin chorus but the bear wasn’t fazed. The pots were battered but the bear kept coming. Something seemed off with this bruin.

These were our two tried and true methods—hang your food, make a lot of noise—and they were not working. Our packs leaned nearby against a tree. Although there was no food in it, I was sure the packs smelled from our dinner’s cooking. The bear began rummaging around the packs, sniffing and exploring all the openings. Meanwhile we were building up the fire until it was a roaring blaze.  I contemplated jumping in the lake. It was close by, and maybe the bear would be discouraged and gone soon. It didn’t take me long to nix that idea—a glacial lake with darkness descending—it was clearly a terrible idea.  I glanced around at the trees, remembering what the ranger had told us. Of course, this was a large black bear, not a grizzly. But at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. Yet this forest was not like those in the southern Sierras, full of trees that were stout with lower branches. This Canadian forest had trees that were mere sticks with slender narrow trunks. They required shimming up and I wasn’t sure I could do that. So I threw more wood on the fire.

Meanwhile, the bear now seemed quite comfortable exploring our campsite. He finished with our packs and turned towards us. We sat perfectly still, breathless. I was wedged between Karen and Sarajo. Keeping one eye on the bear, the other on the fire, we’d all run out of ideas what to do next. Banging pots hadn’t worked. A clean camp failed. So we sat still as statues in front of a blazing hot fire.

The bear first approached Karen. I could feel his hot breath. He paused behind her jacket, sniffing the fabric.  The jacket must have absorbed our lentil dinner aromas. He then switched to her pants. He slowly opened his mouth and began placing it around her leg. Before he had a chance to test her leg any further, Karen let out a loud yelp. The bear jumped back.

Still not startled enough to retreat by Karen’s reaction, he turned his attention to the fire itself. Lurching his entire head between me and Karen, he leaned in towards the flames, his muzzle touching my arm. To our amazement, he was fascinated with the fire and wanted to explore it further. His huge face settled next to my shoulder, his eyes fixated on the fire. I stared at him, yet felt no fear. That surprised me. He leaned in towards the flames. As he felt the heat, he quickly pulled his head back beyond my arm, swiping his nose several times with his paw. He almost looked cute. 

Having enough of the fire, he moved behind and around me to explore Sarajo, who was squeezed to my right. Still fascinated with the smell on our down jackets, he started nipping at her jacket’s fabric, but when she pulled quickly away, the bear decided we just weren’t that interesting nor edible.

At that point our bear moved to explore the tube tents. With our sleeping bags already laid out inside, he went back and forth, inside and out, while we tried to formulate a plan on how to get rid of this bear. By now it had been over an hour and I’d had enough.

I picked up some pebbles without moving from my log by the fire, and began throwing them into the woods. To my surprise, the ploy worked. The bear perked up his ears, looked towards the noise, and moseyed off to investigate. That bear got so curious he forgot all about us, continuing his exploration into the forest.

After a restless sleep, the next morning we quickly packed our gear and headed the remaining miles to the lake’s end for the ranger station. Karen said she was sure she saw that bear come around in the morning. Something seemed “off” about this bear. He had no fear of humans. None of the usual techniques worked to deter him.

The ranger station was plush. It had a bathroom with electric lights. We all went to wash up. Sarajo told us she started her period. Karen was complaining about a sore leg. Pulling her pants away exposed a huge black and blue mark in the shape of an upper and a lower jaw. The size of the bruise was shocking, it wrapped her entire thigh like a tattoo. Luckily the skin wasn’t broken. The bear barely clamped down, but that bruise was a mark of how powerful he was.

The ranger met us and we reported what occurred and how we handled it.

“You girls know there were two women killed by grizzles just a few years ago in Glacier. Pretty close to here too.”

What? Why would I know that?  I’m seventeen, not from around here, and certainly don’t read the news on bear maulings.

He was descriptive and detailed in his story. ”They were killed on the same night, in different parts of the Park, by two different bears. One mauling was on a mountain, the other by a lake. Pulled them right out of their sleeping bags. The Park Service said both of these women were menstruating at the time. They say the smell of the blood drew the grizzlies in. The bears were thinking another bear was in their territory, so they killed them.”

If we weren’t scared by that black bear, we now were terrified with this new information. And Sarajo had just told us her menstrual cycle had started. Our plans to continue our backpack needed to change. We decided, for now, we needed to spend the next several days camped right next to the ranger station. The ranger said if we took day hikes and made lots of noise while we hiked, we’d probably be fine.

Every day it drizzled a fine mist. The skies were overcast. The enormous mountains surrounding the lake were shrouded in clouds. The dense forest cast off its wetness as we day hiked to pass the time, yelling as we hiked. It was awful. The whole reason we enjoyed the back country was the solitude, the quiet, the wildlife. Now all we could think about were grizzlies coming for Sarajo, probably around every corner. After five days, her menstrual cycle over, the three of us hiked the ten miles back to the Waterton Lakes Visitor Center. We surveyed the crowds of eager tourists, felt the pressure of the relentless rain and ominous clouds that enveloped the viewscape, and stuck out our thumbs to head south to Grand Teton National Park, a sunny country far from grizzly bears in 1972.

Only years later did I watch the Montana PBS special and realize we were dealing with a highly conditioned bear. We were just lucky that he wasn’t aggressive. During the feeding of black bears in Yosemite, there were many cases of injuries from frustrated bears.

As far as the myth of menstruation motivating the Glacier bear attacks, Smith writes this about it:

The August 1968 report concluded that, indeed, Michele Koons had been menstruating. Menstrual pads had been found in her personal effects. And it stated that Julie Helgeson, whose pack contained menstrual supplies, might also have been expecting the onset of menstruation. The document postulated that menstrual odor…may have attracted the bears that killed them.* [*It is worth mentioning that the Park Service’s report on the grizzly attacks of August 13, 1967, was written by men, who may not have known that many women have menstrual supplies in their personal effects whether they are menstruating or not.]

Following the Glacier report’s release the menstruation story took on a life of its own, as it was recited by rangers throughout the national parks. In some cases female Park Service employees were forbidden to work in areas where they might encounter bears during that time of the month. Later, an exhaustive study of bear attacks by Stephen Herrero…failed to find any correlation between menstruation and bear incidents.

Why is it worth reading and revisiting the details of this? Haven’t we learned the lessons of food storage? Although there are still plenty of incidents with grizzlies outside the National Parks getting into chicken coops, grain bins, or just unprotected trash, in general the Park Service, surrounding National Forests and Game Agencies have done a good job getting the information out and providing proper storage cans to protect food. Yosemite, that once had hundreds of bear incidents in the 1970s, (i.e. 979 in 1975 alone) now has less than 40 a year.

Besides the historical value of how we almost lost Yellowstone grizzlies due to mismanagement and political pressures, I think we are again at a crucial moment. Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the endangered species list, along with Montana’s bears, but that will not be for long. Montana is right now having discussions about delisting protocols. The lawsuit that put the bear back on the ESA will be challenged and eventually the bear will be off again, for better or worse. Acknowledging that we’ve succeeded in saving the bear from extinction in Yellowstone and the lower 48 is cause for celebration. But how we move forward is the question of the moment.

Bears need movement, corridors for genetic meet and greet. They need habitat preserved. And we need to do all we can, more than we even have, to protect them into the future. Montana growth bulges, how will we respect and give space to grizzlies?

I think one of the things this history shows us is how fragile grizzlies actually are. In my mind, our task now is to continue not to hunt grizzlies once they are delisted, to protect and acquire corridors which includes conservation easements on private lands, to educate newcomers and old timers alike in food protections (including livestock small and large), to appropriate funds and education for ranchers for non-lethal methods of livestock protections, and to support these efforts through general funds for game agencies so as not to rely on hunting licenses. Many groups have been working on all these points. Gaining public support and dollars, especially once the bear is delisted, is probably key.

Climate change along with population growth are growing new threats to the bear. We have seen in the past how quickly we almost lost him. It is possible to happen again.

You can also read this post on my website https://lesliepattenbooks.com/blogs/

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