Night of the Grizzlies

Night of the Grizzlies

Book - 1969
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Publisher: New York : Putnam, [1969]
ISBN: 9780451123046
0451123042
Characteristics: 254 p. :,illus., map (on lining papers), ports. ;,22 cm.

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Justinian537
Aug 31, 2020

Students and teachers returning to the campus of Kearny High School in San Diego, CA in September 1967 (I was a junior that year) were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of Michele Koons, a vivacious, well-liked 1966 graduate, in a bear attack in Glacier National Park in Montana. Also killed in a separate attack the same night (Aug. 12-13) was Julie Helgeson from Minnesota. Both girls were only 19.

Jack Olsen tells their story in an engaging, almost newsreel-like style, providing plenty of context on the geography and history of the park (est. 1910 and administered by the National Park Service) and an almost hour-by-hour description of events both preceding and following the attacks, based on interviews with many of those involved. At the time of the attacks there was little anyone could have done to stop them, since they happened in the dark with almost no visibility, no one had weapons, and the grizzly bears (ursus arctos horribilis) had lost their fear of humans. The descriptions of the attacks are quite graphic, so I don’t recommend this book for younger readers.

Responsibility for this tragedy must be laid directly at the feet of the park service. Reports of bears acting in a strange and aggressive manner had been filtering in for weeks prior to August 12, but were treated by park rangers in a dismissive manner or given a lower priority than fighting lightning-caused fire flare-ups or accommodating crowds of campers and hikers. Grizzly bears were promoted as a tourist attraction instead of as dangerous wild animals, with seemingly little understanding of their nature or habits and too few warnings given about their sometimes-unpredictable behavior.

Perhaps the most egregious example of an unwise practice was allowing tourists and campers to deliberately leave food and garbage out in the open to attract the bears so they could be observed and photographed from the safety of balconies and enclosed structures, sometimes in an almost circus-like atmosphere; and at the same time failing to prohibit campers from sleeping in the open in areas bears were known to frequent. The bears learned to associate the presence of people with food, and a camper in a sleeping bag was just another meal to be devoured. The attacks on Michele and Julie were a nightmare just waiting to happen. Afterwards, the offending bears were hunted down and killed, though this was little consolation to the bereaved families. Signs warning of dangerous bears were posted, and certain trails and areas were closed off.

In the decades since 1967, to its credit, the park service has done a better job of educating visitors, in person and on its website, abut the potential dangers of grizzly and black bears; the practice of leaving food in the open is strictly prohibited; hikers and campers are encouraged to not sleep in the open and are advised to carry “bear spray” (an irritant similar to pepper spray) just in case bears approach too closely. Teri Koons, Michele’s younger sister who was a classmate of mine, has said that at least her family has derived some comfort in that her sister’s death prompted these steps to be taken.

Although Olsen predicts the eventual disappearance of grizzly bears from Glacier National Park, according to recent estimates about 300 remain. But here, as elsewhere, the problem persists: how to find a happy medium between protecting the welfare of native fauna and ensuring the safety of ever-more-numerous visitors. As long as people continue to encroach on what was once exclusively the domain of wild creatures, either in parks or through expanding suburban development, the potential for tragedy will exist.

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MRobertsCasey
Nov 15, 2015

This book puts the fear of camping in you! I read this in one sitting as it enthralls you from beginning to end. But not just a scary story...the author details a series of small incidents that lead up to two tragic events. A PBS documentary is also available.

e
erinsnest
Aug 26, 2015

Aug 2015.....breezed through this book in one day.....used it for my summer reading challenge, an author that I have never read before......great read and very interesting. I must say that I asked at information before hiking in Waterton Park, (which is joined with Glacier Park where these events took place) a couple of days ago (have you had any bear incidents this season?)......this book was a little frightening!

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Justinian537
Oct 14, 2020

Justinian537 thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over

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