September 24, 2011 in Idaho

Fatal grizzly attacks trigger policy review

Deaths at Yellowstone are park’s first since ’86
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Yellowstone National Park officials say they’ll review park policies following two fatal grizzly attacks this summer.

One incident involved a solo hiker, John Wallace, 59, of Michigan, who died Aug. 25 of injuries after being mauled. His body was discovered the next day.

The other involved 57-year-old Brian Matayoshi, of California, who died in July after he was attacked by a female grizzly with two cubs. His wife, who was hiking with him, was unharmed.

Both attacks occurred in areas known as grizzly habitat. Rangers encourage park visitors to carry bear spray and to hike in groups of three or more.

The deaths were the first from grizzly attacks in Yellowstone since 1986, said Al Nash, park spokesman, who noted that the odds of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone are extremely low – about 1 in 3 million.

However, he said, “I expect us to have an in-depth and robust discussion about our visitor safety in light of these two incidents.”

Parks Canada did the same kind of soul-searching 12 years ago after a series of close calls in Banff National Park. No one was killed or injured, but park rangers were worried about an escalating number of grizzly incidents on popular hiking trails, said Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist in Banff.

“Some of these trails attract thousands of visitors per day,” Michel said.

For several years, selected trails were closed during the summer, which made park visitors unhappy. So instead, Banff National Park began requiring hikers to travel in tight-knit groups at Lake Moraine and two other problematic areas – the Bryant Creek and Lake Winnewanka areas at the park’s eastern edge. In addition to being popular with hikers, the locations contain grouse berries and buffalo berries that provide an important food source for bears.

At first, people were required to hike in groups of six. The group size was later revised to a minimum of four. Hikers also must carry bear spray on the Winnewanka trail.

The group size is based on research by Stephen Herrero, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, Alberta. In reviewing a century’s worth of data on grizzly attacks in North American parks, Herrero couldn’t find a single instance of a group of six being attacked. The majority of attacks involved solo hikers or groups of two.

“Smaller parties generally make less noise to alert a grizzly of their presence at a distance,” Herrero wrote in his book, “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.” Smaller groups are also less likely to intimidate a grizzly, he said.

Since Banff adopted the group hiking policy, Michel said the number of reported human-bear encounters has dropped significantly. That’s good for bears as well as people, he said.

About 60 grizzlies live in Banff National Park. The park’s female grizzlies have low reproductive rates, giving birth about once every five years. While coastal grizzlies bulk up on salmon, Banff bears are 80 percent vegetarian and live in a harsh environment dominated by rocks and ice, said Omar McDadi, park spokesman.

Hikers’ compliance with the requirements generally has been good, Michel said, though park officials issued 11 citations this year to people who failed to obey group-size rules or who didn’t carry bear spray. Fines have ranged from $250 to $500. The maximum penalty for a first-time offender is $25,000.

Yellowstone’s Nash endorses the safety-in-numbers concept but said it’s unclear whether a larger group size would have prevented the two fatalities. In the case of Matayoshi, park officials say the grizzly attack might have been triggered by the couple fleeing down the trail. Events leading up to Wallace’s death remain a mystery.

“Because there were no eyewitnesses to this attack, we’re never going to know the specifics,” Nash said.


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