Are National Park Grizzlies Getting Nastier? Yes, Because of the 'Mugger-Bear Syndrome'
The toll at Glacier Park since 1967: 12 campers mauled and three killed
At Montana’s Glacier National Park, the gruesome events of Aug. 13, 1967 have not been forgotten. In separate sections of the park that night, two 19-year-old campers were dragged from their sleeping bags by bears and killed. Since Glacier had never previously recorded a fatal bear attack, it was thought then that the deaths of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons were chance accidents. Later experts began to detect a change in animal behavior patterns—something they now call the “Mugger-Bear Syndrome.”
“There is growing evidence that the huge numbers of visitors here have affected grizzly behavior,” says Park biologist Cliff Martinka, 41. “Some have become so accustomed to people that they no longer run away from them.” In 1945 a mere 67,200 people ventured to remote Glacier; by 1978 the number had swollen to 1.6 million. In the last four years emboldened grizzlies injured nine campers and fatally mauled another victim, Mary Mahoney, 22, from Highwood, Ill.
“We know bears are attracted to the kinds of food people bring into the park,” Martinka says. Smaller and less ferocious black bears as well as the quarter-ton grizzlies have figured out that charging a campsite or a hiker has its rewards—undisturbed access to delicacies. “We are dealing with exceptionally intelligent animals,” Martinka notes. “We have to keep bears and people apart.”
Shocked by the ’67 deaths, Glacier quickly cleaned up remaining garbage dumps on which bears had been feeding, began to block off sections of the park where grizzlies were active and stepped up a program of tracking, tranquilizing and “transplanting” especially troublesome bruins to remote areas. In 1977 Martinka refined the system through computers, and this year it is being used by six other national parks.
At Glacier, ranger Stephen Frye, 31, heads the team that catches the bad-news bears. A St. Paul, Minn. native who fell in love with the park when his father took him camping there in 1952, Frye sympathizes with grizzlies, who went on the threatened species list in 1975. For reasons of safety, Frye prefers setting traps (baited with juicy jack mackerel) to tracking through open country. Once shot in the neck with a morphine-compound dart, an unmapped bear will run for several minutes before passing out. “Oh, does he smell!” says Frye. “It’s a sweet, sticky odor, kind of like Southern Comfort.” The bear is then trucked or helicoptered to park headquarters for tagging before transplantation.
Park pamphlets seek to acquaint visitors with bruin behavior and offer advice on what to do in a crisis (among other things, profess cool and don’t display panic). To drive home their points, two park naturalists put on a weekly bear-meets-man skit for the public. “I find humans repugnant,” roars a ranger in a shaggy costume, offering a bear’s-eye view. “And you know,” he adds, “it isn’t easy being a grizzly.”