How Do You Prove a Bear Guilty of Murder?

By Sarah Zhang | April 4, 2012 12:00 pm

spacing is important
A grizzly bear crossing the street in Yellowstone.

You can’t get inside the head of a grizzly bear, yet that’s exactly what bear managers try to do every time a wild animal attacks a hiker. A bear acting out of self-defense  is allowed to live, but a bear is attacking and eating humans must be killed. That’s the rules of our grizzly bear justice system.

Last summer, a female bear called the Wapiti sow was euthanized after bear managers ruled her responsible for the only two grizzly bear-related deaths in Yellowstone of the past 25 years. The first mauling was probably out of self-defense but the second, well, the only evidence pointing toward her was circumstantial. In the tradition of true crime, Jessica Grose at Slate has written a riveting piece about the Wapiti sow case. At the heart of the issue is what happens when humans and bears are forced to confront each other:

It occurs to me later that this moment perfectly illustrates what [bear manager] Chris Servheen calls “the Park Service paradox.” City slickers like me go to Yellowstone to feel humbled by nature, by its sheer beauty and its uncontrollability—that’s part of the purpose of the Park System, it’s there for the enjoyment of the people. But the park is ultimately a human creation: Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its 3 million yearly visitors safe…

Applying a human-constructed justice system to grizzly bears tries to reconcile this paradox, but it will never be a perfect fix. There are always going to be aspects of grizzly bear behavior that are inexplicable, and that’s what makes them awe-inspiring. That’s also what makes a bear manager’s job so difficult.

For a behind-the-scenes look at this article, also check out The Awl’s interview with Jessica Grose.

Image via Flickr / xoque

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • AG

    Animal right vs human right. Simple.

  • jimmyboy

    IT is not murder when a bear kills a person, or when a person kills a bear (in the true sence of thing), the person though is still dead. Now days keep a big can of pepper spray with you too. though You must stop the bear from killing humans!

  • Brian Too

    The animals are wild and that is a key part of the magnetic attraction people have to the parks systems.

    Imagine a national park completely devoid of all large predators. Just to make it totally safe, remove all the large herbivores too. What do you have left? It’s little more than an amped up municipal park. It’s boring and it certainly isn’t wild.

    We have to avoid that outcome.

  • kheun

    Without the presences of large predators, it will reduce the biodiversity within the park. It has been shown that with the introduction of wolves, it keeps the elk population in check. As a result, it allows different plants having chance to grow and prosper which in term, attracts other species back to the park.

  • nature lover

    The park system has become an industry controlled by a few multinational Big Tourism corporations. You shouldn’t expect to be “humbled by nature, by its sheer beauty and its uncontrollability” from a bus or the paved path around the concessions. A LIMITED hunting season in the park would restore a natural fear of humans in the animals of the parks. The ungulates would stop taking refuge in the parking lots and the predators would follow them.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    People are stupid.
    Many have this idea that bears are cute, cuddly animals and will somehow sense that they mean no harm.

  • IW

    Why would anyone believe the animal? They’re all bear-faced liars….

  • Katie

    Poor little bears, they just need to have their picnic….

    if you go out in the woods today your in for a big surprise,
    if you go out in the woods today you’d better wear a disguise….

  • John Camp

    I support the right to arm bears

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