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The Bear Attacks That Changed America

On a summer night in 1967, a tragedy in Glacier National Park would transform the way we care for wild places.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the May 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to learn about how the relationship between grizzly bears and humans has changed over time

Lexiles: 970L, 850L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, text structure, cause and effect, tone

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At the end of July in 1967, two 14-year-old boys—Steve Ashlock and John Cook—were enjoying a fishing trip in the stunning wilderness of Montana’s Glacier National Park. They’d arrived the day before from their hometown some 40 miles away, excited for three days of cooking over a campfire and sleeping under the stars.

It was July 1967. Steve Ashlock and John Cook were on a fishing trip in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The boys were 14. They’d arrived the day before from their hometown some 40 miles away, excited for three days of cooking over a campfire and sleeping under the stars.

Glacier had been packed with visitors all summer. But Steve and John quickly escaped the honking cars, hordes of hikers, and trash-strewn trails. They trekked several miles up to Trout Lake, one of several glittering lakes set among Glacier’s 1 million acres of majestic forests and rugged peaks.

The boys’ first day was perfect. They set up their campsite and feasted on the cutthroat trout they caught in the lake. Best of all: They spotted a group of bears that came to the lake for an early-evening drink. Some were the smaller and more common black bears. But at least two were grizzlies, which the boys recognized by their lighter-colored fur and the telltale hump between their shoulders.

What luck!

Glacier teemed with marvelous creatures—from hawks peering down from trees to bighorn sheep perched on craggy cliffs to mountain lions slinking around trees. But few creatures inspired awe like the grizzly, North America’s biggest and most powerful animal.

Steve and John understood that grizzlies could be dangerous, and the boys kept their distance. But they weren’t frightened. They knew that grizzlies avoided humans. Indeed, in Glacier’s 57-year history, there had never been a single fatal grizzly bear attack.

That was about to change.

Unimaginable terror was just ahead. Two horrific grizzly attacks would soon shatter the peaceful beauty of Glacier National Park. And ideas about grizzlies—and humans—would never be the same.

Glacier had been packed with visitors all summer. But Steve and John escaped the honking cars and crowds of hikers. They trekked several miles up to Trout Lake, one of several lakes set among Glacier’s 1 million acres of majestic forests and rugged peaks.

The boys’ first day was perfect. They set up their campsite and ate the trout they caught in the lake. Best of all: They spotted a group of bears that came to the lake for an early-evening drink. Some were the smaller and more common black bears. But at least two were grizzlies; the boys could tell by their lighter-colored fur and the hump between their shoulders.

What luck!

Glacier teemed with marvelous creatures. Hawks peered down from trees. Bighorn sheep perched on cliffs. Mountain lions slunk around trees. But few creatures inspired awe like the grizzly, North America’s biggest and most powerful animal.

Steve and John kept their distance. They knew that grizzlies could be dangerous. Still, they weren’t scared. Grizzlies usually avoided humans. In Glacier’s 57-year history, there had never been a fatal grizzly bear attack.

That was about to change.

Unimaginable terror was just ahead. Two horrific grizzly attacks would soon shatter the peaceful beauty of Glacier National Park. And ideas about grizzlies—and humans—would never be the same.

Accent Alaska.com/Alamy Stock Photo

FEEDING GRIZZLIES
Bears that eat human food and garbage can lose their natural fear of humans, which puts them—and humans—at risk.

Powerful and Sacred

Grizzlies have been lumbering across North America for some 50,000 years—far longer than humans have lived here. When the first people arrived, more than 12,000 years ago, tens of thousands of grizzlies lived up and down the western part of the continent.

America’s first people formed dozens of nations and tribes, each with different languages, customs, and beliefs. But many of these diverse groups shared a deep respect for bears. In Cheyenne legends, for instance, powerful bears tested the strength and mettle of the most courageous warriors. To the Hopi people, bears were sacred beings, gifted with extraordinary powers of healing.

Unlike black bears, which could once be found in all corners of America, grizzlies were unique to the West. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that stories of these larger, more powerful bears began to drift eastward. The most famous of the first grizzly accounts came from explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led a historic four-year “journey of exploration” of the American West.

While traveling along the northern plains, Lewis and Clark met members of the Hidatsa tribe, who warned of a formidable bear that even the most skilled hunters were wary of. But Lewis and Clark shrugged off these warnings. Unlike the Hidatsa, who hunted with bows and arrows, Lewis and Clark and their men carried rifles. Surely their bullets, they thought, would protect them against any animal they might encounter.

They were wrong.

Grizzlies have lived in North America for some 50,000 years—far longer than humans have. When the first people arrived, more than 12,000 years ago, tens of thousands of grizzlies lived up and down the western part of the continent.

America’s first people formed dozens of nations and tribes. Each group had its own languages, customs, and beliefs. But many of these diverse groups shared a deep respect for bears. In Cheyenne legends, powerful bears tested the strength and mettle of warriors. To the Hopi people, bears were sacred beings with amazing powers of healing.

Unlike black bears, which could once be found in all corners of America, grizzlies were unique to the West. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that stories of these larger, more powerful bears began to drift eastward. The most famous of the first grizzly accounts came from explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. These men led a historic four-year “journey of exploration” of the American West.

While traveling along the northern plains, Lewis and Clark met members of the Hidatsa tribe. These people warned of a formidable bear that even the most skilled hunters were wary of. But Lewis and Clark shrugged off these warnings. Unlike the Hidatsa, who hunted with bows and arrows, Lewis and Clark and their men carried rifles. They thought their bullets could protect them against any animal.

They were wrong.

Truly Safe

As they crossed into what is today Montana, Lewis and Clark’s team had nightmarish encounters with grizzlies. The men were amazed by the bears’ size; some towered 7 feet high when standing on their hind legs. The men watched in shock as their bullets seemed to slide off a grizzly’s thick pelt of fur and layers of armor-like muscle. Lewis, in his journal, described the grizzly as the “most tremendous-looking animal” and as “extremely hard to kill.” He thought it best that his men sleep with their rifles and never venture out alone.

When Lewis and Clark returned to the East, some of the stories they published about their expedition suggested that grizzlies were monsters—essentially mindless killers with a taste for human flesh. In the coming decades, as thousands of farmers, ranchers, and fortune-seekers settled in the West, many felt justified in killing grizzlies whenever possible. Tens of thousands of grizzlies were shot and poisoned. Nearly all the rest were chased from their ancestral habitats.

By the time John and Steve were growing up in Montana, fewer than 1,000 grizzlies remained in the lower 48 states, and most lived in the northern wilderness of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The only truly safe place for a grizzly was in one of the region’s two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone, where hunting was prohibited and all animals were protected by law.

As they crossed into what is now Montana, Lewis and Clark’s team came across grizzlies. The men were amazed by the bears’ size; some towered 7 feet high when standing on their hind legs. The men watched in shock as their bullets seemed to slide off a grizzly’s thick fur and layers of armor-like muscle. Lewis, in his journal, described the grizzly as the “most tremendous-looking animal” and as “extremely hard to kill.” He thought it best that his men sleep with their rifles and never venture out alone.

When Lewis and Clark returned to the East, they published stories about their travels. Some of the stories made grizzlies seem like monsters—essentially mindless killers with a taste for human flesh. In the coming decades, as thousands of people settled in the West, many felt justified in killing grizzlies whenever possible. Tens of thousands of grizzlies were shot and poisoned. Nearly all the rest were chased from their ancestral habitats.

By the time John and Steve were growing up in Montana, fewer than 1,000 grizzlies remained in the lower 48 states, and most lived in the northern wilderness of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The only truly safe place for a grizzly was in one of the region’s two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone. In these parks, hunting was prohibited and all animals were protected by law.

Jim McMahon/Mapman® (map)

Highly Intelligent

By the mid-20th century, scientists had come to understand that grizzlies were not the mindless monsters that the old stories had portrayed them to be. Grizzlies are, in fact, highly intelligent, with keen memories. They are shy and will almost always avoid a human if possible. They will eat nearly anything but tend to favor roots and berries. In Glacier, their favorite treats are plump little rodents called marmots.

To be sure, grizzlies do possess fearsome powers. Their front paws can crack a skull in one swipe. Their knife-sharp, finger-long claws can tear apart tree stumps. Their jaws can chomp through metal and bone. And they can run faster than a galloping horse, swim for hours, and climb high into trees when they want to (which is not often).

But it is unusual for a grizzly to unleash its deadly powers on a human. Normally, a grizzly attacks only if taken by surprise or if it feels threatened. This does happen on occasion, and growing up, John and Steve likely heard horror stories of people being mauled by bears. In 1960, a mother bear had attacked five hikers on a remote trail.

Such stories were rare, though, which is why the boys didn’t feel afraid on that July evening when they spotted grizzly bears sipping cool water from Trout Lake. In fact, the boys felt lucky—privileged—to see one of Earth’s most rare and magnificent creatures in the wild.

It was what happened the next evening that filled them with terror.

The sun hadn’t yet set, and the boys were out on the lake, horsing around on a big pile of floating logs. Suddenly, a strange sound caught their attention. They peered in the direction of their campsite and spotted a skinny grizzly devouring a loaf of their bread. They hoped the bear would leave. But then it started to tear apart their backpacks.

Determined to save their gear, the boys shouted at the bear. They were sure that their voices would scare it off. But no amount of yelling could chase it away.

The boys weren’t grizzly experts, but something about this bear seemed abnormal—and dangerous. They waited until the bear was distracted by a pan of trout they had prepared for dinner, and then they crept to shore. They threw on their boots and fled into the darkening night, praying the grizzly wouldn’t chase after them.

What John and Steve didn’t know was that Glacier was in the midst of a grizzly crisis. Some grizzlies had lost their natural fear of humans and were behaving aggressively. But it was not the bears that were the real problem.

It was people.

By the mid-20th century, scientists had come to understand that grizzlies were not mindless monsters. Grizzlies are, in fact, highly intelligent, with keen memories. They are shy and usually avoid humans. They will eat nearly anything but tend to favor roots and berries. In Glacier, their favorite treats are plump little rodents called marmots.

Grizzlies do have fearsome powers. Their front paws can crack a skull in one swipe. Their long, sharp claws can tear apart tree stumps. Their jaws can chomp through metal and bone. They can run faster than a galloping horse, swim for hours, and climb high into trees when they want to (which is not often).

But they rarely attack humans. Normally, a grizzly attacks only if taken by surprise or if it feels threatened. This does happen on occasion. In 1960, a mother bear had attacked five hikers on a remote trail.

Such stories were rare, though. Steve and John weren’t scared on that July evening when they saw grizzly bears drinking from Trout Lake. In fact, the boys felt lucky to see one of Earth’s most amazing creatures in the wild.

It was what happened the next evening that filled them with terror.

The sun hadn’t yet set. The boys were out on the lake, horsing around on a pile of floating logs. Suddenly, they heard a strange sound. They looked over at their campsite. A skinny grizzly was devouring a loaf of their bread. They hoped the bear would leave. But then it started to tear apart their backpacks.

The boys wanted to save their gear. They shouted at the bear. They thought their voices would scare it off. But that’s not what happened.

The boys weren’t grizzly experts, but something about this bear seemed strange—and dangerous.

They waited until the bear was distracted by a pan of trout they had prepared for dinner, and then they crept to shore. They threw on their boots and fled, praying the bear wouldn’t chase after them.

What John and Steve didn’t know was that Glacier was in the midst of a grizzly crisis. Some grizzlies had lost their natural fear of humans and were behaving aggressively. But it was not the bears that were the real problem.

It was people.

“Grizzly Show”

More specifically, it was the garbage that people were leaving all over the park—leftover food at campsites, wrappers and broken bottles on trails. Glacier was overrun with litter. Some people in the park were even using garbage to deliberately lure grizzlies into contact with humans.

Each evening at a rustic hotel called the Granite Park Chalet, workers would dump pounds of leftover food from the dining room into an outdoor pit. Dozens of guests would then crowd onto a balcony, clapping and hooting as they watched grizzlies fight over leftover hot dogs and chili. Some were disgusted by this cruel, circus-like spectacle. But night after night, the show went on.

Feeding human food to a wild animal isn’t only unhealthy for the animal’s diet. It can also permanently change the animal’s habits and relationship to the natural environment. In Glacier, some grizzlies began to depend entirely on garbage for survival. They shook off their natural shyness toward humans and ventured boldly into more-crowded parts of the park. For these bears, humans had become a source of food.

More specifically, it was the trash that people were leaving all over the park: leftover food at campsites, wrappers and broken bottles on trails. Glacier was filled with litter. Some people in the park were even using garbage to purposely lure grizzlies into contact with humans.

Each evening at a rustic hotel called the Granite Park Chalet, workers would dump leftover food from the dining room into an outdoor pit. Guests would then crowd onto a balcony, clapping and hooting as they watched grizzlies fight over leftover hot dogs and chili. Some were disgusted by this cruel, circus-like spectacle. But night after night, the show went on.

Feeding human food to a wild animal isn’t just unhealthy for the animal’s diet. It can also permanently change the animal’s habits and relationship to the natural environment. In Glacier, some grizzlies began to depend entirely on garbage for survival. They shook off their natural shyness toward humans and ventured boldly into morecrowded parts of the park. For these bears, humans had become a source of food.

Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo

Yellowstone National Park, founded in 1872, was the world’s first national park. Today, there are 62 national parks in the U.S., like Glacier, pictured here. To keep these lands wild, visitors are encouraged to “leave no trace”—that is, to leave no evidence that they were there.

A Harrowing Trek

John and Steve made it out of the wilderness that night. After a harrowing 4-mile trek through the darkness, they arrived at a ranger station. They breathlessly told their story to the ranger on duty; the man was not surprised. In fact, he and other rangers had been hearing about that strange grizzly all summer.

But Glacier’s rangers had other concerns. Never had the park been as crowded as it was that summer. Even more worrisome: Wildfires were burning in some areas. Many rangers knew something needed to be done about that troublesome grizzly, but they had more pressing problems to deal with.

The boys spent the night in a cabin. The next morning, when they returned to their campsite, the grizzly was gone—but before it departed, it had ripped apart their tent, smashed their lantern, and devoured all their food. Cans of spaghetti and chili were torn apart.

The boys left the park with what little of their camping gear they could salvage. Two weeks later, they would realize that they’d been lucky to escape with their lives.

John and Steve made it out of the wilderness that night. After a harrowing 4-mile trek through the darkness, they reached a ranger station. They told their story to the ranger on duty. The man was not surprised. He and other rangers had been hearing about that strange grizzly all summer.

But the rangers had other concerns. Never had the park been as crowded as it was that summer. And wildfires were burning in some areas. Many rangers knew something needed to be done about that troublesome grizzly, but they had more pressing problems to deal with.

The boys spent the night in a cabin. The next day, they returned to their campsite. The grizzly was gone. But it had ripped apart their tent, smashed their lantern, and eaten all their food. Cans of spaghetti and chili were torn apart.

The boys left the park with what little of their camping gear they could salvage. Two weeks later, they would realize that they’d been lucky to escape with their lives.

Shocking News

On August 13, the world woke up to shocking news from Glacier. During the night, two 19-year-old women had been killed by two different grizzly bears. The attacks were unrelated, occurring 7 miles apart. Neither grizzly had been surprised or threatened; the bears attacked the women as they slept in their tents.

How could this have happened?

In the days that followed, this was the question that echoed across Glacier’s forests and lakes. Never before had there been a fatal grizzly attack in Glacier. How was it possible that in a single night, two grizzlies had become killers?

Glacier’s leaders scrambled to provide an explanation. It was the heat, they said. Or the wildfires. Or maybe lightning had spooked the bears. Some even blamed the women, for wearing scented makeup that could have attracted the bears.

Rangers were ordered to track down and euthanize the grizzlies that attacked the women. One was a mother bear that had been spotted with her two cubs at the Granite Park garbage pit. Her front paw was badly torn, likely from broken glass. The other bear was in even sorrier shape. It was malnourished and had broken glass embedded in its teeth.

This was the skinny bear from Trout Lake.

Finally, Glacier’s leaders were forced to confront the stark truth: It was not weather or fires or makeup that had caused the grizzlies to turn vicious. It was garbage.

For years, rangers and park leaders had known trash was a problem. All summer they had been receiving complaints about grizzlies lurking near campgrounds and menacing humans.

Yet no action was taken. Glacier’s leaders had failed to uphold the founding mission of the National Park Service: to protect wild places and the creatures that live there. As a result, two women had lost their lives. Four grizzlies were also dead; the mother grizzly’s two cubs were also euthanized.