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Kangaroo court: an unjust criminal justice system for animals in National Parks?

On August 25th of last year, a man was brutally killed while vacationing in Montana. An expert forensics team was called in to the scene of the crime, and quickly determined from blood patterns next to a half-eaten PowerBar that the victim had been surprised and attacked from behind while taking a break from a hike. His badly damaged body was found partially buried nearby, with wounds indicating that he tried to fight back against his attacker.

A search of the area resulted in locating hair, which was soon found to belong to a suspect in another local killing from a few weeks prior to this attack.  Footprints found at the scene were the same size as those of the suspect in the earlier killing as well. DNA samples were taken for future analysis. The suspect and her two small children were taken into custody.

The case was rapidly brought not before a jury of the suspect’s peers, but before a panel of local experts, including members of the forensics team that investigated the case. The suspect was found guilty even before all of the samples from the crime scene had been processed. The penalty was death for the suspect and life imprisonment for her children. The accused was not represented by a lawyer,  no appeals were permitted, and she was dead within a few weeks of the attack on the unfortunate tourist. Once the DNA evidence had been processed, the detection of another suspect at the scene of the crime raised some doubt that the correct individual had been taken into custody, but it was too late to stop the execution.

How could such a trial happen in the United States of America in the 21st century? We are a nation of laws! We pride ourselves on suspects being innocent until proven guilty!  The answer is simple. The now-executed suspect in this series of grisly deaths was, in fact, a grizzly herself- a grizzly bear. The series of attacks has focused public attention not just on the dangers associated with hiking in areas where large wild predators live, but on the bizarre system of pseudo-justice  used by the National Parks Service to determine what to do with animals that kill or injure humans.

Human-bear conflicts

Bears were once common throughout much of North America, but human population growth and development has drastically reduced their range. An estimated 90% of the available black bear habitat in the United States, for example, has been lost. The most common places were humans still interact with bears are in National Parks and forests, as well as the towns and agricultural areas surrounding these lands.

Most bear-human conflicts involve a bear damaging crops or property in search of food. Some bears can become “food-conditioned” to humans because it’s easier to steal food from farmland, campers or dumpsters than it is to hunt. These animals generally aren’t a threat to human safety, but can cause economic harm and are often referred to as “nuisance bears”.

More serious incidents in which a human is seriously injured or killed by a bear do occur, but very rarely. According to the New York Times, only 63 people in the U.S. and Canada have been killed by black bears in the last century. Within Yellowstone National Park, there have been 43 bear-related injuries in the last thirty years, during which time almost 100 million visitors entered the park. Much like shark attacks, bear attacks are extremely rare, but result in media coverage and public scrutiny.

Bear court

If a grizzly bear is suspected of killing a human being in Yellowstone National Park, there are three possible outcomes. The bear can be left alone, captured and held in captivity for life, or executed. A recent article in Slate magazine describes the process.

“The rules are quite elaborate but essentially they state: If a grizzly hurts someone while acting in a naturally aggressive way, then the bear goes free. If a grizzly acts unnaturally aggressive, though, and injures a person, it must be euthanized. It all comes down to the animal’s state of mind.”

A grizzly bear, Wikimedia Commons

The complete Federal document, known as the Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines, was written in 1986 and can be found in its entirety here. What constitutes “natural” and “unnatural” is left somewhat up to the investigators, but aggression in defense of cubs is generally considered natural behavior, while “unprovoked” aggression and/or partially consuming dead humans is considered unnatural. This, of course, makes total sense because grizzly bears never “naturally” prey upon smaller animals or feed on dead bodies that they come across, except when they do that exact thing all the time.

The reasoning behind removing a grizzly suspected of an “unprovoked” attack on a human bears a striking resemblance to the long-discredited “rogue shark” theory. This theory, which achieved cultural (if not scientific) prominence because of the movie “Jaws”, claims that once a shark has tasted a human, they will then continue to preferentially hunt humans instead of their natural food supply.

There is absolutely no evidence in favor of rogue shark theory, and if there is any evidence that bears permanently change their behavior after an unprovoked attack on a  human, I can’t find it, though some individual bears have been implicated in multiple incidents. There appears to be no evidence that a bear that has attacked a human once is more likely to attack a human in the future. Given this lack of evidence, is there an actual benefit to human safety for removing a bear that has been involved in an attack? According to Brennan Jorgensen, a research assistant with the Property and Environment Research Council , that isn’t the right question.

” The question should not be whether or not it is reasonable to remove a bear for the sake of human safety, but rather is it morally right to punish a bear for acting naturally in an environment we continue to call “wild.”

The death penalty

Even if the Parks Service is simply being extra careful when it comes to human safety,  execution seems hard to justify. It certainly won’t discourage other bears from attacking people- there’s scant enough evidence that the death penalty works as a deterrent among humans, who actually understand that it exists. If the purpose of this “bear court” is to keep humans safe from “rogue bears”, then a lifetime in captivity works just as well as execution, with the added benefit that the bears are still able to contribute to the limited gene pool of a species that was protected by the Endangered Species Act until recently. Captivity would be expensive, but the government wouldn’t have to pay the fees since many zoos around the world would be thrilled to have a grizzly bear. The current system is morally troubling, according to Jorgensen, who said,

“If the bear is living in its natural environment and humans disrupt her and are unprepared to deal with a wild animal (carrying bear spray, hiking in groups, e.g.), then I would argue the human is the one at fault….If national parks are meant to preserve wilderness areas, shouldn’t the primary objective be to preserve the life of the wild animals that inhabit the land? Rather than spending large sums of Park Service dollars to find and kill a bear they are nominally sworn to protect, perhaps those funds could be better allocated for park visitor education?”


Fortunately, alternative strategies for resolving human-bear conflicts have been developed and tried throughout the world. Since it is much easier to change human behavior than bear behavior, the simplest and most effective solution is education. People can minimize their risk of a bear incident while hiking by taking simple steps, such as not hiking alone, making noise so that you don’t startle a bear by sneaking up on it, and not running when you see a bear. Special food storage equipment (known bear bags and canisters) can make the prospect of stealing food from a camper less appealing to a bear, and similar principles have been applied to  dumpsters in communities where bears are common visitors. Certain types of fencing can be extremely effective at keeping bears off of private property. Repeat offender “nuisance bears” can be moved to areas far from human habitation. Radio collars are sometimes used to track individual bears, information which can be easily shared with hikers.

Any human death is a tragedy, but, as is the case with shark beach nets, the current response to bear attacks seems like it makes people feel safer without actually having any impact on human safety. This seems to me like a poor basis for environmental policy making for dealing with a recently-threatened species living on some of the last supposedly “wild” land in the United States.

The National Parks Service did not respond to my request for a comment on the scientific justification behind this troubling management practice.


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