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Today, Yellowstone National Park announced that they have killed Blaze, the 20-something year old grizzly sow who was responsible for Friday’s fatal attack on a solo, off trail hiker who failed to carry bear spray. What was an unspeakable human tragedy has now also been compounded by the decision to kill Blaze – a bear without a single black mark to her name – and place her two cubs of the year in a zoo.
For days, we appealed to Yellowstone to, at the very least, make carrying bear spray mandatory and, most especially, find a rehabilitation facility for the cubs, one that would allow the bears to be re-released into the wild.
Yesterday morning, Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in BC offered to rehabilitate the cubs. Though there were hurdles to clear with moving the bears across the border, their track record of successfully releasing 18 grizzly cubs back into the wild spoke for itself. People of all walks of life offered to help and make the crossing possible, all it required was for Yellowstone to reach out to Angelika from Northern Lights.
Angelika waited all day for a phone call that never came.
Then Yellowstone announced the cubs would never return to the wild, but be placed in a zoo for life.
Where to begin?
Well, for starters, this is the beginning of a campaign, not the end.
More than 125,000 people from around the globe, in a matter of a few days, rallied to make their voices heard; to appeal for common sense to prevail in deciding the fate of these bears. Afterall, Yellowstone’s superintentend Dan Wenk admitted on NBC that the attack was not predatory, but the result of a sow defending her cubs.
The public plea, for the most part, was respectful, understanding the impossible situation YNP staff faced and showed empathy for those having to weigh the options. Fair and balanced solutions were put forward. But in the end, for reasons we may never know, the pleas – the solutions – were ignored.
Now individuals and organizations need to stand up – again – and call on Yellowstone to reverse their decision to place the cubs in a zoo and do what they should have done in the first place: Rehabilitate the cubs for re-release. Even if Yellowstone would rather keep the cubs in America, there are rehabilitation options in the States and Angelika of Northern Lights remains willing to help with the process, if only someone will call her.
And there needs to be an outcry for new backcountry rules – like mandatory bear spray – to be put in place immediately in order to avoid any more tragedies of this kind. It’s an easy, cost-free solution that has so much upside and no downside. Why wait?
I don’t know Dan Wenk personally. But I don’t doubt he cares deeply for the land, the people and the animals. And I do know many, many rangers and bear management officials who I can promise you care passionately about the bears.
I also know the park is gun shy about erring on the side of the bears after Yellowstone decided to spare the life of a grizzly sow involved in a fatal attack in 2011. That same sow was involved in a seperate attack later that same year that caused the death of another hiker. The park received considerable flack and Wenk almost lost his job.
Here’s the thing though, both 2011 attacks were proven to be human error and though the decision was eventually made to kill the sow, the root causes were never addressed. Moreover, four other grizzlies fed on the remains of the second attack victim and none have shown any aggression towards people. So while I can begin to see why Wenk – and other high ranking officials – feel they can’t take the risk of allowing Blaze to live, I don’t get why policies weren’t changed in 2011 to lessen the chances of human error (more closure areas, more education, mandatory bear spray).
Ultimately, my frustration is not toward one person or one institution, but a general feeling of we all needed to have done more at the time, to empower leadership to take bold actions that could have, possibly, saved this hiker’s life, and those of these bears.
I always find it awkward, talking about the lives of bears when a human being lost his. But I think for the most part, people understand that we can mourn the loss of a human and, on a different scale, equally appreciate the life of a bear and understand it shouldn’t pay with its life for a mistake any one of us could have made. Forgetfulness happens; complacency happens.
But this brings up a much bigger question. If Yellowstone is not a place where the bears come first, where do they get the benefit of the doubt? Are parks not suppose to be tools of conservation first and foremost?
There have been many voices declaring that Yellowstone is for the people. And I can’t say policies don’t reflect that. Yet recreation is allowed on National Forest land in the US. In Canada, hunting is permitted within most provincially protected areas. I’m not anti-human, anti-recreation, anti-hunting or anti-hiking (I love hiking!), but shouldn’t there be some place on this planet where we allow wildlife their rights? Surely, we don’t deserve 100% of everything. Surely, animals – creatures that sustain the life cycles that sustain us – are worth even just a fraction of the land base we share. Or, at the very least, if we insist on having our domain over all land, should we not accept the risks for our actions and not penalize the bears for being bears?
It is an existential question about the state of our parks – on both sides of the border – we need to start discussing. And of course, all of this looms as a precursor to a much bigger issue: The debate over whether a grizzly bear population that is an unconnected, genetic island is really no longer endangered and should be opened to hunting, as is the plan. The people of the Blackfoot Nation are standing strong against plans to delist the grizzly from the endangered species list in the United States (goaltribal.org), but we must all realize if we care for Blaze, we must care equally for all grizzlies in this wilderness and join an adult conversation on the issue.
So where to from here? I don’t know.
We had plans on returning to Yellowstone next week, but are cancelling. We’re not American and we can’t vote – all we can do is vote with out wallets and this is our small, likely inconsequential protest.
But the entire tragic situation has reminded us of our driving purpose: Education. We want to play a bigger role in helping ensure lessons are learned from this tragedy. We want to contribute to helping demonstrate that with reasoned, respectful arguements, a better balance can be achieved between nature and people.
Of course, all of you are already working toward this aim through your passion, your thoughtfulness and your help in making your voices heard. We are grateful to everyone of you and are blown away by how many stood up for a bear they never knew…and sadly never will.
On a personal note, I’m going to deeply miss Blaze. She was akin to Grand Teton National Park’s 399 and on the same level as Yellowstone’s Scarface. She was the park’s matriarch. For one of the slowest reproducing animals in the world, whose cubs have only a 50% survival rate, Blaze was exceptional for raising so many grizzlies to adulthood and giving us iconic bears like Raspberry, Circus, Hobo and White Claw (who also had his life cut too short). Her genetic legacy will live on, but most certainly should live on with her two cubs from this year. They were as playful and as joyous animals as you will ever find. To deprive them of their freedom, to me, is a fate worth than death.
Do I care more for Blaze than other grizzlies because I knew her? I’d like to say no, but the reality is I do. I watched her for more than 300 days of my life. I learned from her. I was amazed by her grace and patience and spirit. Yellowstone will never be Yellowstone for me without knowing Blaze lived a full and healthy life on that magnificent sage brush covered landscape.
I for one will be making a donation in Blaze’s name to the Jane Goodall Institute and the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, two outstanding, compassionate, innovative and driven institutions who came to her aid in a profound way over the last few days. And for that, I’ll never forget their actions. And hopefully no one else will forget the paw prints Blaze has left behind.
And I hope all of us will keep working to ensure the paw prints of Blaze’s final two cubs of her life continue to make an impact on the land they were born to roam.
D. Simon Jackson
Founder, Spirit Bear Youth Coalition
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