Patrol ranger Bert Gildart was driving down the highest pass in Glacier National Park just after midnight on Aug. 13, 1967, when a woman’s voice suddenly crackled over his two-way radio. It was another ranger, and she had a horrifying message: A grizzly bear had mauled someone at the popular Granite Park guest chalet.
Gildart called for help, setting in motion an urgent medical mission. Hours later, as he slept in his apartment at park headquarters, a colleague knocked on his door.
“He said: ‘Bert, you’ve got to get up. There’s been a grizzly bear mauling,’ ” recalled Gildart, now 77. “I said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘No: There’s been another one.’ ”
The information, Gildart says today, was “mind-boggling,” and for good reason. The park, nearly 1,600 square miles of stunning peaks and valleys in northwest Montana, had recorded no grizzly-caused human fatalities since it was established in 1910. Then, on one night, two bears in spots several miles apart killed two campers. Both victims were 19-year-old women.
Those attacks, which took place 50 years ago this summer, set off an immediate quest at Glacier to understand how a tragedy of such infinitesimal odds could have happened. But they also marked a turning point in relations between North Americans and the continent’s largest predators, revolutionizing how public agencies deal with bears and inspiring new paths of research on grizzly behavior.
“We’ve certainly had our share of other types of fatalities, but none of them seemed to live like that particular event does,” said John Waller, Glacier’s bear biologist. “It was a watershed moment for bear management, not just in Glacier but the whole National Park Service. It fundamentally changed how we view our relationship with bears.”
Theories about the attacks’ cause swirled in the aftermath. Perhaps lightning and dry conditions, which sparked wildfires that week, had possessed one bear to drag Julie Helgeson from the Granite Park campground where she slept and a second to mangle Michele Koons at the Trout Lake site where she camped with four friends. The women’s menstrual cycles and the possibility that someone had given the bears LSD were also suggested triggers.
But soon it became clear that the problem was far more mundane: human food and garbage.
A mounding problem
Glacier, a park that had recorded just 110,000 visitors between 1910 and 1920, was in the late 1960s welcoming nearly 1 million people a year, and more of them were heading into the backcountry. Granite Park Chalet, a mountaintop site reachable by trail, had so many visitors in 1967 that its incinerator could not contain all their trash, and managers discarded the excess in a gully behind the facility. Soon the grizzly bears’ foraging there became a tourist attraction.
Many park staffers were uncomfortable with this situation, as recounted in Jack Olsen’s 1969 book, “Night of the Grizzlies.” Among them were Gildart and his friend, wildlife biologist Dave Shea. They had witnessed five bears dine on trash at the chalet days before, and both had expressed concern at park headquarters.
“It was basically an incident waiting to happen,” said Shea, 77, who worked at Glacier for 36 years.
In the Trout Lake area, meanwhile, one grizzly had spent that hot summer rummaging through garbage barrels near a collection of cabins, menacing hikers and raiding backcountry campsites. Although backpacking was becoming more popular, there “was no wilderness ethic,” Waller said: Campers would simply leave behind their trash.
Despite reports about the bear’s behavior, park officials took no action. It wasn’t that they didn’t know bears and human food were a dangerous mix, Waller said; enforcement just wasn’t a priority. Now we know that bear-caused injuries at national parks were quite high at the time, but then, he said, “it all got swept under the carpet.”
The immediate response, however, was to find bears in the areas of the attacks and kill them. Within two days, rangers had fatally shot three at the chalet. Shea was among those who fired at the third, a sow with two cubs and a ripped paw pad that would have been painful, possibly increasing its aggression. Investigators concluded that this bear had likely killed Helgeson and seriously injured her boyfriend.
Gildart was deployed to track down the Trout Lake bear. He shot it two days after the attacks — an emaciated female that had glass from garbage embedded between its teeth and human hair in its stomach. Soon after, Gildart helped collect several giant burlap sacks of trash near the lake.
News of the maulings, splashed across newspapers nationwide, was a public relations crisis for the Interior Department. A few critics called on authorities to finish off the extirpation of grizzly bears that had begun as early settlers pushed West.
“Some people said, we ought to go in there and hunt them all out. And that first year, that’s kind of the way I felt,” Gildart said. But he changed his mind: “We learned all these bears being seen on a regular basis were conditioned to food — and had lost their fear of people.”
That understanding triggered major changes in Glacier and elsewhere. A strict “pack in, pack out” policy was established for backcountry sites, which were also given designated cooking areas that were separate from sleeping areas. Cables or hooks for hanging food out of bears’ reach were put in place. Campers were required to reserve spots, which limited their numbers.
Strategies for what to do about “problem bears” — the kind that seek human food — have evolved. In the early 1980s, Glacier said it would shoot or move more of them. Later, trapping and relocating prevailed, until studies revealed that the animals usually returned to where they were caught. Now the preferred method is hazing, or using things like rubber bullets and loud cracker shells, “to teach that bear no,” Waller said.