Compassionate Conservation at Yellowstone Park?

Grizzly Bear

Where is the boundary between ‘human’ safe territory and the wild, roaming spaces for the animal kingdom to inhabit and enjoy?

This past week we had the news(1) of Blaze, a 20 year old sow grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park. She is no-longer with us. Her cubs have reportedly been taken off to live out the rest of their natural lives in a zoo, under the stewardship of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). As of 13 August 2015, the cubs’ final destination is unknown. There is a petition for the cubs to be rehabilitated instead – Care 2 Petition

Lance Crosby, a 63 year old hiker died as a result of injuries sustained in a bear attack at Yellowstone. Blaze stood trial (in her absence) and was summarily found guilty of Lance’s murder, DNA evidence conclusively linking Blaze to the hiker’s regrettable death. Why Blaze attacked Lance is not clearly evident. Was Blaze trying to protect her cubs from an approaching human that she perhaps mistook for a hunter and a threat?

The Yellowstone Park Rangers own report(2) dated 13 August, provided the following supporting DNA evidence that this female (Blaze) was the bear involved in the attack and includes:

  1. The bear and cubs were at the attack site when Crosby’s body was found by park rangers;
  2. Bear tracks of a female with cubs were found at Crosby’s body;
  3. This bear was captured at the fatality site within 24 hours of the body being found; and
  4. Canine puncture wounds inflicted on the victim are consistent with the bite size of the female captured at the site.

So, it’s pretty conclusive that Blaze was to blame it seems, but no theory as to why she attacked. Blaze’s cubs are clearly mentioned, so did she feel they were threated? Perhaps so, but ‘self-defence’ (mistaken or otherwise) does not apply to grizzly bears apparently.

This begs the question, when is a human encroachment on an animal’s natural territory, and when is an animal encroaching and threatening a natural human habitat? Or is all habitat human domain by default, as the planet’s ‘master’ species?

When a human-being either wilfully, or mistakenly ventures into the wilderness, where does the line, balance or risk of encroachment rest?

The potential circumstances don’t seem to have been weighed too greatly in the Yellowstone authority’s decision – “Based on the totality of the evidence, this adult female [Blaze] grizzly was the bear involved in the fatality and was euthanized today.”

The other compelling ‘factor’ taken into consideration to kill Blaze was “that a significant portion of the body [Lance’s body] was consumed and cached with the intent to return for further feeding. Normal defensive attacks by female bears defending their young do not involve consumption of the victim’s body.” Does the ‘science’ say that once a grizzly has ‘tasted’ human flesh, that bear is more likely to attack humans in the future?

So, the Yellowstone rangers concluded Blaze must have attacked purely out of instinct and hunger. Not defence, then hunger? I guess we’ll never know.

So, Blaze had to go. Blaze had to be ‘removed’ (or killed/murdered), there was no other way. Are we just too ‘sensitive’ at the moment following Cecil’s tortured death, or does something not seem right?

However, the question remains, how does Blaze’s ‘removal’ regardless of the decision process help:

  • Enhance human hikers’ safety in the wilderness areas of Yellowstone Park? Blaze had a previous ‘clean’ record, with no past incriminations. So, it’s not like she was on a watch list;
  • How does Blaze’s ‘removal’ send a message to other grizzly bears to think before they perhaps defend themselves or their cubs (mistakenly, or otherwise)? If a grizzly perhaps defends, but doesn’t eat their ‘presumed’ attacker, will that grizzly be shown more leniency? I doubt grizzly bears will absorb that subtle paradox;
  • Does Blaze’s ‘removal’ help Lance’s family come to terms with his sad loss? Does the ‘removal’ of the convicted perpetrator (Blaze) from its natural habitat help them with their loss?
  • Does Blaze’s ‘removal’ for acting as she did (on this one occasion) in her natural habitat not have a hint of revenge about it?

Perhaps there is another way – If bears, such as Blaze had tracking collars that could send out an alert signal to any hiker’s hand held receiver in the vicinity, would that help keep human and bear at safe limits? Or is part of the reason hikers venture into the wilderness is that they want ‘a close encounter’ and that risk makes them feel at one with nature? But what is an acceptable level of risk for all parties concerned?

Yellowstone’s advice (not mandatory) is “Hikers are encouraged to travel in groups of three or more, always carry bear spray that is readily accessible, make noise on the trail, and be alert for bears. Per park regulations, people are required to maintain a minimum distance of at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from all other large animals.”

In this Blaze/Crosby case both hiker and bear seem to have been at risk. Was the hiker following Yellowstone’s advice (it’s not mentioned in their report)? Is Blaze’s ‘removal’ a good example of Compassionate Conservation in action as part of Yellowstone’s bear management programme?

Simon Jackson(3), author of ‘Outrage in Yellowstone’ and founder of Spirit Bear Youth Coalition said “If Yellowstone is not a place where the bears come first, where do they get the benefit of the doubt? Are parks not supposed to be tools of conservation first and foremost?”

Also, according to Dr Simon Jackson(4), Lance Crosby was an “off trail, solo hiker who failed to carry bear spray…. (As Yellowstone Park Superintendent, Don Wenk admitted to NBC news).”

The risk for both parties in similar circumstance in the future will not change with the removal of Blaze. I suspect there are plenty more grizzly bears in Yellowstone that have yet to comprehend what Blaze did to deserve her fate at the hands of her Yellowstone ‘protectors.’ Will hikers heed the warning and stick to safer areas and Yellowstone’s published advice? I hope so, but why not make compliance mandatory for the protection of all.

  1. Psychology Today, Mark Berkoff Ph.D, 13 August 2015
  2. National Park Service, 13 August 2015
  3. Ghost Bear Photography, Dr Simon Jackson, 13 August 2015
  4. Care 2 Petition, Rehabilitate Blaze’s Cubs

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