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Why the Park Service Killed a Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone

The agency's decision to euthanize a problem bear in 2015 angered some, but NPS biologist Kerry Gunther says it was the right call. Here's why.

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Editor’s Note: In an informal poll, we asked our Facebook followers whether Yellowstone National Park officials were right to euthanize a grizzly that killed and partially consumed a hiker in August. About three-quarters of those who responded disagreed with the park service’s decision. In response, NPS biologist Kerry Gunther sent us the following letter, which provides some insight into the complex decision-making that goes into wildlife management. We’ve published it in full.

I’m writing in response to your poll in the November 2015 issue in which 75% of readers were against Yellowstone National Park’s decision to kill a grizzly bear that killed a hiker in August 2015. Many of these readers likely did not know the details of the incident before voting, so I’d like to provide some background information because I believe that context matters.

The hiker was not killed in a remote wilderness area, but rather on the edge of a rural development in an area of the park used daily by dozens of hikers, joggers, and people walking for exercise. No one knows if the attack was defensive (due to a surprise encounter) or predatory, but afterwards the bear consumed part of the body.

The park’s response to this bear was consistent with how we have previously dealt with similar incidents since the 1970s. Bears that have killed or injured humans in known defensive attacks have not been removed from the population. Bears that consumed humans have been killed.

It is important to understand that the grizzly bear involved in the fatality this year was not killed for punishment or retribution. Since bears are intelligent, highly adaptable, and quickly learn to exploit new food resources, this bear had potentially learned a dangerous lesson. We could not rule out the possibility that she would prey on people in the future.

It is true that the hiker was alone and not carrying bear spray. Sadly, this behavior is not out of the ordinary. In a survey of 7,770 people day-hiking in 2,669 different parties in the park, 60% of groups had fewer than the recommended three people, 14% hiked alone, and only 14% of the people carried bear spray.

We hope that Backpacker Magazine readers will take this survey data to heart and help us increase the use of bear spray by day-hikers and over-night users. Carrying and using bear spray will decrease the number of bear and human encounters that end in death for both bears and humans. We’ll never know if bear spray would have changed the outcome for the hiker in August, but we strongly believe it is a best practice of people who truly care about bear conservation.

Finally, we are committed to the protection of the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone National Park. It was not an easy decision this summer, but we believe it was the right one for overall grizzly bear conservation.

Kerry Gunther is a Bear Management Biologist at Yellowstone National Park.

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