The Night of the Grizzlies marked a turning point in the National Park System, as well as in the lives of a couple young Park rangers.
The Night of the Grizzlies happened just over fifty years ago, on August 13, 1967. It was a night when most Park officials were worried about forest fire risk, but not bear problems. During the middle of the night, the unthinkable happened.
In separate incidents that just happened to coincide on that fateful night, a bear went into a campground at the Granite Park Chalet and attacked Julie Helgeson, a young woman from Minnesota, dragging her off into the darkness. That same night, another bear went into the Trout Lake campground and attacked campers. A few people managed to get away from the bear, though Michele Koon, a 19-year old woman, wasn’t able to unzip her sleeping back and the grizzly carried her off. Both women died from the injuries they sustained.
Two 20-something Park Rangers, Bert Gildart and Dave Shea, were called to deal with the emergencies, though it was too late to save the young women.
Gildart, who later became a well-known outdoor writer and photographer, and Shea, were speakers at the annual conference of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association held in Choteau, Montana, in late April. A central part of their presentation was how the Night of the Grizzlies changed bear management policies in not only Glacier National Park, but the whole Park system.
Until that fateful night, grizzly bears were treated as entertainment. At Granite Park, garbage was left out in a nearby area where tourists could watch bears come in to feed on the free food. At Trout Lake, Gildart recalled, “It was a mess. There was garbage everywhere.”
Gildart had the duty to search out and kill the Trout Lake bear. He found the bear, which he described as “emaciated,” and had broken glass imbedded in its mouth, proving it had been eating garbage. A necropsy proved the bear was the killer, as it had blonde hair in its stomach.
Shea, who became the Park’s first bear biologist, spoke of an immediate and radical change in nationwide Park bear management. It ended feeding of bears, instituted a strict pack in-pack out policy, and changed campground and backcountry camping policies. In addition, the Park Service began an aggressive education program on bear management.
Since then, there has been just one bear mauling in Glacier National Park, and that was when a biker accidentally ran into a bear, and the bear retaliated in self-defense.
Author’s note: Sorry, the above paragraph is incorrect. There have been around 11 further bear maulings, mostly in the 1970s. See comments from Bert Gildart below, in comments section.
Both Gildart and Shea lament the tremendous increases in Park visitation. Back in 1967, there were around 150,000 Park visitors annually. Now, that number is over 3 million, and the sheer numbers of people are overwhelming the wilderness aspect of Glacier.
Mike Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grizzly bear specialist, has been working on bear management issues along the Rocky Mountain Front for 40 years. He relates that in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), there were about 370 bears in 1970. There are now over 1200, and populations are still growing.
As bear populations increase, bears are moving onto the plains, usually following river bottoms. FWP does a lot of bear monitoring and a number of bears wear radio collars, providing almost minute-by-minute information about bear movements.
Some bears have roamed to areas east of I-15, even to the outskirts of Great Falls. Madel expects that within a few years there will likely be grizzlies in the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the Fort Peck Reservoir.
A lot of Madel’s work involves working with farmers and ranchers, helping them protect livestock and property from bear depredations. Electric fencing around bee yards and livestock corrals has been proven to be an effective deterrent.
As grizzly bears continue to increase in numbers and re-colonize ancient habitats, bear management will continue to be a hot button issue in Montana.
Finally, I’d like to wish all wives, especially mine, and mothers a Happy Mother’s Day holiday weekend. Please be patient when your children serve you breakfast in bed.