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THE GRIZZLY BEAR MURDER CASE
Jack Olsen
May 12, 1969
Death lurked on the trails of Glacier National Park in the hot summer of 1967. A bitterly debated question—can man and bear peacefully coexist in a shrinking environment?—was about to be answered. After the fearful events of August a determined effort was made to obscure that answer. Now Jack Olsen, in a three-part series growing out of intense personal investigation, tells what happened, why it happened—and who was at fault
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May 12, 1969

The Grizzly Bear Murder Case

Death lurked on the trails of Glacier National Park in the hot summer of 1967. A bitterly debated question—can man and bear peacefully coexist in a shrinking environment?—was about to be answered. After the fearful events of August a determined effort was made to obscure that answer. Now Jack Olsen, in a three-part series growing out of intense personal investigation, tells what happened, why it happened—and who was at fault

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By the middle of July the hot summer sun had sliced several feet off the snowdrifts around Granite Park Chalet. Soon the trails were completely clear and visitors were arriving by the dozens. Mrs. Anderson, a stickler for cleanliness, was frantic about the garbage. Each night there was more of it and the little incinerator could no longer handle the load. Tom Walton punched holes in the side of a 50-gallon drum and tried to burn garbage that way, but each morning he would go outside and find that the bears had arrived and knocked over the drum to dine on the unburned residue. He talked the problem over with Mrs. Anderson and Ross Luding, and soon the garbage was being handled in the old manner—dumped in the gully. As though they had been waiting in the wings for their cues, the bears began to show up regularly just after dark. For awhile the dramatis personae changed from week to week, and the Waltons suspected that they were being visited by nomadic bears that had just left hibernation and were on the road. Two small buckskin-colored grizzlies stayed around for a few days, but they soon gave way to others. In those middle weeks of July there was only one constant: each morning there would be the fresh tracks of a big bear and two cubs.

Then for a few days another consistent pattern developed. A large buckskin grizzly and an equally large dark bear would slowly walk up the narrow trail and begin to pick at the food with great dignity shortly after dark. While they were dining, sometimes backing off to woof and threaten each other, a small light-colored bear would run at top speed up the draw and catapult itself into the garbage area like a character out of the animated cartoons. Word of the remarkable bear show had spread around the tourist centers and soon the chalet was groaning with 65 guests every night, absolute capacity. There were daily hikes in from Logan Pass, led by ranger-naturalists. The parties would walk the scenic seven-mile trail along the Continental Divide and arrive at Granite Park Chalet footsore and weary. After dinner the revitalized visitors would sit in the chalet's main dining room and sing songs. Almost without fail Tom Walton or one of the chalet employees would arrive in the middle of the third or fourth song and make the announcement about the bears, and 60 or 70 people—usually including their ranger-naturalist tour leader—would run outside to watch the animals growl and frolic and enjoy their evening repasts not 50 yards away. Walton soon learned from longtime visitors that such bear shows had been going on nightly at Granite Park Chalet for decades.

One evening the slop in the garbage pail included two pounds of spoiled bacon, and that night Walton noticed that two big bears squared off in a knockdown fight complete with loud grunts and ferocious swings and several near-decapitations. The guests clapped and applauded, and a few of them tried to creep down the gully to get closer to the grizzlies for pictures, but Walton quickly grabbed them and told them they were endangering their health. He found one man who had hidden behind a tree near the bears and ordered him back to the safety of the chalet.

After the night of the first big fight, Walton heard that any delicacy like a slab of spoiled bacon or a ham rind would cause the big animals to circle and threaten each other and sometimes trade blows, and since this seemed to go over big with the tourists and the bears did not seem to be concerned about anything but themselves, he was not worried. Once or twice, when the bears had been acting too docile to stir up the crowds, Walton slipped a few pieces of bacon into the pail and the bears reacted by fighting. One night, in fact, the battle broke out again after all the visitors had gone to bed, and for several hours the screams and growls continued intermittently in the night.

The ranger-naturalist who had led that afternoon's hike managed to sleep through all the noise, but a few days later he was ordered by park headquarters to provide a full report on "the bear fight at Granite Park." The chagrined ranger came back to Walton for a fill-in, and when Walton asked how park headquarters had found out about the incident, the ranger told him, "It filtered back. Everything that happens up here filters back." Walton guessed that the park had a complete dossier on every event of the summer, including the abandonment of the faulty incinerator and the resumption of the nightly feeding schedule, but he did not see any reason to worry. Six or seven ranger-naturalists had regularly watched the bears feed, and several other rangers, including a few executives, had spent the night at the chalet and witnessed the ritual and only one person had expressed the slightest hint of criticism. A high official of the park had said, "Tom, don't you feed those bears anymore."

"O.K.," Walton said.

"And you better start burning all your garbage in the incinerator we got for you," the ranger executive said.

Rather than argue, Walton nodded agreeably, but later that night told his wife that the instructions did not sound serious to him, that he was willing to bet that this particular ranger official enjoyed watching the feeding bears as much as anyone and was merely going through the motions of admonishing him. He discussed the matter with Luding, and the veteran concessionaire told him that there was nothing to worry about, to continue putting out the scraps. "It's against the rules," Luding said, "but I don't know what else to do and neither does the Park Service."

By early August the Granite Park Chalet's official two-month season was half over, and the grizzlies' visits to the garbage dump had become a big talking point in the park, but the Park Service's public position was that animal feeding was strongly prohibited by several dozen rules and regulations and therefore it must not be going on. Rangers and naturalists who took in the nightly display of grizzlies went along with their superiors. Most of the rangers had filed protests, written or verbal, at one time or another, to one executive or another, but when they saw that the ritual appeared inevitable, they ceased fighting city hall and said nothing more. High park officials would deny that so much as a single scrap of food was being put out for wild animals anywhere in the park. If such illegal activities were going on, they said, they would be the first to know about it.

Meanwhile, business at the chalet was booming. Some nights every bed would be taken and eight or 10 more customers would stretch out on the floor in their sleeping bags. If there had ever been a sliver of a chance that the small incinerator could handle the leftovers, it was gone now.

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