Prairie Lights: For bears, getting to know us is a hazard


It may look like a cute encounter, but these bears were making the potentially fatal mistake of becoming too accustomed to human beings.

All over Montana, bruins are on the march.

How could any of us have guessed what was in store back on the last day of August, when a black bear that had been breaking into houses in the Emerald Hills near Lockwood was killed by game wardens?


Ed Kemmick

At the time, I was mainly fascinated by all the euphemisms in the story, all the odd, judgmental language that we humans use when we describe other species. The “sub-adult female bear” was described as “aggressive,” as if in some other universe there are apex predators that write pastoral poetry and sip chamomile tea.

The story didn’t come right out and blame stupid humans for the death of the teenage—excuse me, “sub-adult”—bear, but it did include three long paragraphs of advice regarding the proper storage of food, the cleaning of barbecue grills and the importance of keeping cooking odors from “escaping” from one’s house.

Best of all was the last sentence of the story: “If bears do not find food in one location, they will look elsewhere.” The barely concealed message: If you tidy up, the bears will leave you alone and eat your neighbor, the dumb slob.

If a bear does eat your neighbor, by the way, it will not be described as an act of euthanasia. That is a term we reserve almost exclusively for the well-intentioned “putting down” of animals (or other human beings) by human beings. We are the only species, apparently, capable of inflicting death in a wise and excusable manner.

Anyway, after a lull of some three weeks, bear-human encounters went on a roll in Montana. By the end of the third week of September, another black bear had been dispatched, this time an adult male foolish enough to explore the playground at Ponderosa Elementary School.

I wonder: Could game wardens have shot the bear if he had been coming down a slide with a big grin on his face, or kicking his legs to achieve maximum elevation on a swing?

A few days later, it was reported that a Montana Highway Patrol trooper had taken photos of a bear hanging out near Orchard Elementary School, not far from Ponderosa School, the previous weekend. That bear, the trooper said, had “ambled off on its own.” We all know that “ambled” is a friendly verb. And that friendly bear may have been the one killed—euthanized, put down, assisted on its transit to glory—at Ponderosa School.

It’s a fraught, messy business being a human being and trying to describe what we do, and why.

And then came the bear story of the year. Bow hunter Chase Dellwo was after some deer near Choteau when he was attacked by a 350- to 400-pound male grizzly. The hunter was knocked over, bitten on the head, then bitten on the leg and tossed through the air. As the grizzly moved in for more mayhem, Dellwo said he remembered an article his grandmother had given him years ago.

That article said large animals have bad gag reflexes, Dellwo said, “So I shoved my right arm down his throat.”

Dellwo suffered some injuries, but he is alive and he still has both arms. Millions of people all over the world read that story and wondered if they would have had the brass, and the presence of mind, to heed Granny’s advice under similar circumstances. I’d like to think I could have done that, but more likely, in the words of the article quoted above, the grizzly who attacked me would not have had to “look elsewhere.”

In mid-October, a woman walking her dog along the Yellowstone River south of Livingston was attacked by a bear and got off with injuries described as “not life threatening.”

But the bear did bite her on the head, an attack that by definition should have have been classified as life-threatening, inasmuch as it’s possible to die of shock, or extreme alarm.

A few days later, not far from that encounter, a curious black bear ambled into Bozeman High School, where he padded down a few hallways long enough to be captured on video, which was posted on Twitter. Authorities in Bozeman seemed pretty cool-headed. The bear “just left the building,” the school superintendent was quoted as saying, and then was “pushed north” by local police officers until disappearing into the wild.

If only it were always that easy. When the bears eat us, they are hunted down and “euthanized” as soon as possible. Even mere ursine intruders, if they are found to have become “acclimated” to us, are marked for annihilation.

We need to worry about how we view the natural world if it becomes a capital crime for its creatures to become accustomed to ourselves.

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