SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The 1,600 square miles of Glacier National Park, tucked into the northwest center of Montana, spill over on both sides of the Continental Divide. It is magnificent country. Naturalist John Muir called Glacier Park "the greatest care-killing scenery" on the North American continent. He could not have been more truthful.

In the deep interior of the park much of the land is above the timberline. There are jagged and severe mountains, as broken in their contour as the outlying mountains are smooth, and high on their slopes hang the 50 or 60 glaciers that give the place its name.

Below the timberline Glacier Park is teeming with animal life. One sees specimens that would be minor miracles if they were spotted outside the limits of the park. There are places near Sperry Glacier where it is a rare day when mountain goats are not visible. Around Many Glacier a small herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is usually grazing and elk may be seen along the middle branch of the Flathead River. Other species—though rarely seen—are also there: the Rocky Mountain wolf, the mountain lion and the wolverine. And there, within the confines of the park, the largest of all American carnivores, the grizzly bear, is making one of its last stands.

The observer may prowl the back-country of the park for weeks without spotting a grizzly, but then suddenly a broad expanse of silver and brown will stir in the bushes ahead, rise to its full height of seven or eight feet, shake its great shaggy head from side to side, and disappear into the forest at a speed that belies its quarter ton of sinew, fur and muscle.

Anatomically the grizzly is a magnificently designed machine with heavy, powerful muscles and a collection of joints that are loose and flexible—similar in principle to the universal joints of an automobile, enabling the animal to function from almost any position. The teeth are canine, and the molars are larger than life, equipping the grizzly for both cutting and grinding. The jaws are powered by two massive muscles that enable the bear to crunch through almost anything softer than steel.

The grizzly's hearing is about equal to man's, its eyes markedly inferior, its nose one of the sharpest in the animal kingdom. Since the bear stands alone at the top of the North American peck order, it is not in the least reluctant to approach anything that moves. Sometimes this approach is made at top speed, and many a hiker in places like Glacier Park has had the wits scared out of him by a grizzly that seemed to be charging downwind on him but at the last second whirled around and ran upwind twice as fast. Some park officials attribute most grizzly "attacks" to the bear's poor eyesight and limitless curiosity. Not frequently, but often enough to keep the hiker honest, the bear will keep right on coming and bowl his victim over. This is part of the animal's vast reservoir of unpredictability, an unpredictability that is the quintessential nature of the beast.

In the first 30 years of the park's existence, only one human being was harmed by grizzlies. John Daubney hiked into Piegan Pass in 1939 and was slashed by one of a trio of bears that attacked him. The next attack did not come until August 1956, when a man named Tobey Johnson was bitten by a grizzly while sleeping in the open at Stoney Indian Pass. In the next 10 years there were nine more attacks. The mystery was not that there were so many attacks—but so few. Tens of thousands of visitors were now sifting into the farthest reaches of the park, moving into the bears' territory. But despite this intense pressure the administrators of the park could report at the beginning of 1967 that in its long history not a single life had been lost to the world's largest carnivore. Apparently the Park Service's improvised policy of shooting or transplanting troublesome specimens was working successfully.

Admittedly there were a few mysterious deaths on the books of Glacier Park, people who had left the trails and never been seen again. But the fact remained that not a single documented death could be blamed on the embattled grizzly as the long, hot summer of 1967 began. To park officials, who deeply admired the bears and did not want to shoot them in the first place, this was the most comforting statistic of all. To some it was, perhaps, too comforting.

A few miles inside the southern edge of Glacier Park are two lakes—McDonald and Trout—both glowing with the intense blue-green common to deep glacial lakes all over the world. Trout Lake, so named for its good supply of fish, is the smaller of the two. It is two miles long and shaped like a tadpole. Lake McDonald, 10 miles long and two miles wide, is the largest lake in the park. Between the two lakes rises a rugged 2,000-foot steep called Howe Ridge.

At the northern end of Lake McDonald, in a fern-filled mossy copse, a small collection of cabins called Kellys Camp traces its existence back to the years before Glacier Park was founded. Today the camp is owned by descendants of the homesteaders who settled the area and refused to sell it to the government, thereby retaining possession even though they are completely surrounded by publicly owned land.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9