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When a grizzly commits a “crime” in the U.S., scientists investigate to decide whether the bear is guilty or innocent. (James Balog / Getty Images)

Hunting a Killer

Can rangers find it before it kills again?

Kerry Gunther is a bear biologist. It’s his job to protect the grizzly bears that make their home in Yellowstone National Park, a vast wilderness that stretches across parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Most days, he spends his time studying bear behavior and habitats.

August 26, 2011, was different. Earlier that day, a pair of hikers had come across a horrifying sight on the Mary Mountain Trail: the partially eaten body of a man. The report was alarming. In July, a hiker had been killed by a grizzly just eight miles from the same trail.

Could this be another fatal grizzly attack? And if so, was the same bear responsible? Gunther and a team of park rangers climbed into a helicopter and set out to investigate.

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

Grizzly bears are some of the most fearsome creatures on the planet. These powerful beasts can weigh more than 600 pounds. Their teeth are made for piercing flesh, their four-inch claws for digging up plants. Standing on their hind legs, full-grown grizzlies can tower more than 10 feet. Their claws, as long as pocket knives, are razor sharp. Not to mention that bears can run faster than horses.

Luckily for us, they prefer to avoid people. Until the summer of 2011, there hadn’t been a grizzly-related death in Yellowstone in more than 25 years. Grizzly attacks are exceptionally rare.

So what had happened that August day on the Mary Mountain Trail?

After an hour of searching, Gunther and his team finally found the man the hikers had reported seeing. It was a terrible and gruesome scene: The partially eaten body was half-buried. Nearby were bloody paw prints and piles of grizzly scat, or poop.

Under the fading light, the team scrambled to gather clues. Like detectives at a crime scene, they snapped photos, collected fur and saliva samples, and measured paw prints. Meanwhile, one ranger stood guard, scanning the area for movement. They all knew that the grizzly could return at any moment to finish its meal.

Fortunately, the team made it safely to the chopper, just as the sun disappeared.

The investigation was only beginning.

BEAR JUSTICE

When a grizzly commits a “crime” in the U.S., scientists investigate to decide whether the bear is guilty or innocent. Generally, a bear that kills and eats its victim is found guilty. A bear that hurts someone out of fear or the need to defend its cubs is found innocent.

It might sound strange to think that we could hold wild animals responsible for their behavior. Yet this system was created to protect bears.

Tens of thousands of grizzlies once roamed the country. They were a prized symbol of the American West, both admired and feared. But at the same time, they were being shot, poisoned, and trapped into near-extinction. Over the past 100 years, as humans have built more towns and highways, bear habitats have shrunk to 2 percent of the size they once were. Fewer than 1,300 grizzlies are now left in the United States and only 600 in the Yellowstone area.

Just a few decades ago, any bear that harmed or threatened a person or destroyed property would be hunted down and killed.

Today, bear justice is more forgiving. For example, the grizzly that had killed a hiker in July was found innocent. The bear, called the “Wapiti sow,” appeared to have been defending her two cubs. So officials let her go free.

THE INVESTIGATION HEATS UP

When Gunther returned to headquarters on the night of August 26, the investigation launched into full force. There were still many questions to answer. Was the Wapiti sow responsible for killing a second person? Had she killed the hiker in order to eat him? Or had the hiker died from something else, and the bear helped herself to the body?

As the days went by, evidence piled up. An autopsy showed that the hiker had indeed died from bear-inflicted wounds. Using a tool called “DNA fingerprinting” on the bear scat, experts were able to prove that the Wapiti sow and her cubs had been at the scene of the crime.

It was time to bring them in.

THE VERDICT

At the end of September, the Wapiti sow was leading her cubs along the Yellowstone River when she smelled something too good to resist: meat. She followed the smell into a 10-foot-long aluminum tunnel, where she discovered a bison carcass. Suddenly, a trapdoor snapped shut behind her. The cubs, meanwhile, sat outside the tunnel, crying for their mother.

After weeks of avoiding rangers, the Wapiti sow had finally been caught. The rangers took the sow and her cubs to a laboratory for tests. On October 1, hair and blood samples from the bears were matched to both the July and August crime scenes. Verdict? Guilty.

What followed was the worst part of Gunther’s job. The sow was put into a deep sleep. Then, with a heavy heart, Gunther put her down.

It was a painless death.

The sow’s cubs were sent to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, where they will spend the rest of their lives in captivity—safe, but not free.

Justice had been done. Or had it?

A TOUGH CALL

For the bear experts in Yellowstone, killing a grizzly is a terrible task. But sometimes those who dedicate their lives to protecting grizzlies must also destroy them. The bear justice system is founded on the idea that a human-eating bear will develop a taste for people and kill again. No scientific data exist to support that idea. But Yellowstone’s bear managers can’t risk more people getting hurt. In a strange way, by killing the Wapiti sow, Gunther may have actually saved other bears. If word got out that a humaneating grizzly was on the loose, frightened people might be more likely to shoot any grizzly they saw—even a bear that posed no threat.

It was a tough call, though. Only about 250 of the grizzlies in Yellowstone are females. If the grizzly population is going to continue to grow, those females need to have long lives so they can have as many cubs as possible.

Though he knows it isn’t popular with everyone, Gunther stands by his decision.

Do you?

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Storyworks. For more from Storyworks, click here.

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