The text "Night of the Grizzlies" in the jaws of a large bear
MICHAEL S. HEATH

Night of the Grizzlies

On a summer night in 1967, a tragedy in Glacier National Park would transform the way we care for wild places.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the October/November 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read a narrative nonfiction article and identify how humans’ leaving garbage in national parks changed the behavior and well-being of grizzly bears, and what happened as a result.

Lexile: 700L-800L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
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Cause and Effect

As you read, look for what caused two grizzly bear attacks and what changed as a result of them.

It was July 1967. Two 14-year-old boys, Steve Ashlock and John Cook, were enjoying a fishing trip in Montana’s Glacier National Park. They’d arrived the day before, excited for three days of cooking over a campfire and sleeping under the stars.

Glacier had been packed with visitors all summer. But Steve and John quickly escaped the honking cars, crowds of hikers, and trash-covered trails. They hiked several miles up to Trout Lake, one of the glittering lakes set among Glacier’s thick forests and rugged mountains.

The boys’ first day was perfect. They set up their campsite and feasted on the trout they caught in the lake. Best of all: They spotted a group of bears that came to the lake for a drink. Some were the smaller and more common black bears. But at least two were grizzlies. The boys recognized their lighter-colored fur and the hump between their shoulders.

What luck!

Glacier was filled with marvelous creatures. Hawks peered down from trees. Bighorn sheep perched on rocky cliffs. Mountain lions snuck through the trees. But few creatures inspired awe like the grizzly, North America’s biggest and most powerful animal.

Steve and John understood that grizzlies could be dangerous, and the boys kept their distance. But they weren’t frightened. They knew that grizzlies usually stayed away from humans. In Glacier’s 57-year history, there had never been a single deadly grizzly bear attack.

That was about to change.

Terror was just ahead. Two horrific grizzly attacks would soon shatter the peaceful beauty of Glacier National Park. And ideas about grizzlies—and humans—would never be the same.

It was July 1967. Two 14-year-old boys, Steve Ashlock and John Cook, were enjoying a fishing trip in Montana’s Glacier National Park. They’d arrived the day before. They were excited for three days of camping and fishing.

Glacier had been crowded all summer. But Steve and John quickly escaped the honking cars, crowds of hikers, and trash-covered trails. They hiked several miles up to Trout Lake. This is a beautiful lake surrounded by Glacier’s thick forests and rugged mountains.

The boys’ first day was perfect. They set up their campsite and fished. Best of all: They spotted a group of bears that came to the lake for a drink. Some were the smaller and more common black bears. But at least two were grizzlies. The boys could tell because these bears had lighter-colored fur and a hump between their shoulders.

What luck!

Glacier was filled with marvelous creatures like hawks and bighorn sheep. But few creatures inspired awe like the grizzly. They are North America’s biggest and most powerful animal.

Steve and John understood that grizzlies could be dangerous. But they weren’t frightened. They knew that grizzlies usually stayed away from humans. In Glacier’s 57-year history, there had never been a single deadly grizzly bear attack.

That was about to change.

There would soon be two horrific grizzly attacks at Glacier National Park. Ideas about grizzlies—and humans—would never be the same.

ACCENT ALASKA.COM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Feeding Grizzlies

Bears that eat human food and garbage can lose their natural fear of humans, which puts them—and humans— at risk.

Powerful and Sacred

Grizzlies have lived in North America for about 50,000 years—far longer than humans have. When the first people arrived, more than 12,000 years ago, tens of thousands of grizzlies lived up and down the western part of the continent.

America’s first people formed dozens of nations and tribes. Each group had its own languages, customs, and beliefs. But many of these groups shared a deep respect for bears. In Cheyenne legends, powerful bears tested the strength and bravery of warriors. To the Hopi people, bears were sacred creatures with amazing powers of healing.

Unlike black bears, which could once be found all across America, grizzlies lived only in the West. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that stories of these larger, more powerful bears began to reach the East. Some of these stories made grizzlies seem like monsters— mindless killers with a taste for human flesh.

In the coming decades, as thousands of people moved out West, many killed grizzlies whenever possible. Tens of thousands of the bears were shot and poisoned. Nearly all the rest were chased from the habitats where they had lived for thousands of years.

By the time John and Steve were growing up in Montana, fewer than 1,000 grizzlies remained in the lower 48 states. Most lived in the northern wilderness of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The only truly safe place for a grizzly was in one of the area’s two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone. In these parks, hunting wasn’t allowed and all animals were protected by law.

Grizzlies have lived in North America much longer than humans. The first people arrived more than 12,000 years ago. Back then, tens of thousands of grizzlies lived here. Many of America’s first people came to see these bears as sacred creatures.

Unlike black bears, which could once be found all across America, grizzlies lived only in the West. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that stories of these larger, more powerful bears began to reach the East. Some of these stories made grizzlies seem like monsters who hunted humans.

This is one reason why people started hunting grizzlies. Tens of thousands of the bears were shot and poisoned. Nearly all the rest were chased from their habitats.

By the time John and Steve were growing up in Montana, fewer than 1,000 grizzlies remained in the lower 48 states. Most lived in the northern wilderness of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The only truly safe place for a grizzly was in one of the area’s two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone. In these parks, hunting wasn’t allowed. All animals were protected by law.

SEAN XU/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (GLACIER NATIONAL PARK); JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN ® (MAP)

Where in the World: Glacier National Park

Highly Intelligent

By the mid-1900s, scientists had come to understand that grizzlies were not mindless monsters. In fact, the bears are highly intelligent, with excellent memories. They are shy and usually avoid humans. They will eat almost anything but prefer roots and berries. In Glacier, their favorite treats are chubby little squirrels called marmots.

Grizzlies do have fearsome powers. Their front paws can crack a skull in one swipe. Their knife-sharp claws can tear apart tree stumps. Their jaws can chomp through metal and bone.

But it is unusual for a grizzly to use its deadly powers on a human. Normally, a grizzly attacks only if taken by surprise or if it feels threatened. And so John and Steve didn’t feel afraid on that July evening when they spotted grizzly bears sipping cool water from Trout Lake. In fact, they felt lucky to see one of Earth’s most amazing creatures in the wild.

It was what happened the next evening that filled them with terror.

The boys were out on the lake, horsing around on a big pile of floating logs. Suddenly, a strange sound caught their attention. They looked over at their campsite. A skinny grizzly was devouring a loaf of their bread. They hoped the bear would leave. But then it started to tear apart their backpacks.

The boys shouted at the bear, hoping that their voices would scare it off. But no amount of yelling could chase it away.

The boys weren’t grizzly experts, but something about this bear seemed unusual— and dangerous. They waited until the bear was distracted by a pan of trout they had prepared for dinner. Then they snuck to shore. They threw on their boots and ran, praying the grizzly wouldn’t chase after them.

What John and Steve didn’t know was that Glacier was in the middle of a grizzly crisis. Some grizzlies had lost their natural fear of humans and were behaving aggressively. But the real problem wasn’t the bears.

It was people.

By the mid-1900s, scientists had come to understand that grizzlies were not monsters. In fact, they are intelligent and shy. They usually avoid humans. They will eat almost anything but prefer roots and berries.

Grizzlies do have fearsome powers. Their front paws can crack a skull. Their knife-sharp claws can tear apart tree stumps. Their jaws can chomp through metal and bone.

But it is unusual for a grizzly to use its deadly powers on a human. Normally, a grizzly attacks only if taken by surprise or if it feels threatened.

This is why John and Steve didn’t feel afraid on that July evening when they spotted grizzly bears. They felt lucky to see these amazing creatures. It was what happened the next evening that filled them with terror.

The boys were out on the lake, playing around on a big pile of floating logs. Suddenly, a strange sound caught their attention. They looked over at their campsite. A skinny grizzly was devouring a loaf of their bread. They hoped the bear would leave. But then it started to tear apart their backpacks.

The boys shouted at the bear, hoping that their voices would scare it off. But no amount of yelling could chase it away.

The boys knew something about this bear seemed unusual—and dangerous. They waited until the bear was distracted. Then they snuck to shore. They threw on their boots and ran. They prayed the grizzly wouldn’t chase after them.

What John and Steve didn’t know was that Glacier was in the middle of a grizzly crisis. Some grizzlies had lost their natural fear of humans. They were behaving aggressively. But the real problem wasn’t the bears.

It was people.

"Grizzly Show"

More specifically, it was the garbage that people were leaving all over the park—leftover food at campsites, wrappers and broken bottles on trails. Glacier was filled with litter. Some people in the park were even using garbage to lure grizzlies closer to humans on purpose.

Each evening at a hotel called the Granite Park Chalet, workers would dump leftover food from the dining room into an outdoor pit. Guests would then crowd onto a balcony, clapping and shouting as they watched grizzlies fight over leftover hot dogs and chili. Some were disgusted by this cruel event. But night after night, the show went on.

Feeding human food to a wild animal isn’t just unhealthy for the animal. It can also permanently change the animal’s habits and relationship to the natural environment. In Glacier, some grizzlies started to depend on garbage for survival. They began losing their natural shyness toward humans and moved into busier parts of the park. For these bears, humans had become a source of food.

Actually, it was the garbage that people were leaving all over the park. Glacier was filled with litter. Some people in the park were even using garbage and leftover food as bait for grizzlies. They wanted to see grizzlies up close.

This was happening every night at a hotel called the Granite Park Chalet. Workers would dump leftover food into an outdoor pit. Guests would then crowd onto a balcony. They would clap and shout as they watched grizzlies fight over leftover hot dogs and chili.

Feeding human food to a wild animal is unhealthy for the animal. It can also change the way it acts in the wild. In Glacier, some grizzlies started to depend on garbage for survival. They began losing their natural shyness toward humans. They moved into busier parts of the park. For these bears, humans had become a source of food.

A Terrifying Hike

HOLGER LEUE/GETTY IMAGES

John and Steve made it out of the wilderness that night. After a terrifying 4-mile hike through the darkness, they arrived at a ranger station. They told their story to the ranger on duty.

The man was not surprised. He and other rangers had been hearing about that strange grizzly all summer. But the rangers had bigger problems to deal with, like the wildfires that were burning in some areas of the park.

The boys spent the night in a cabin. When they returned to their campsite the next morning, the grizzly was gone. But before it left, it had ripped apart their tent, smashed their lantern, and eaten all their food. Cans of spaghetti and chili were torn apart.

The boys left Glacier with what little camping gear they could save. Two weeks later, they’d realize that they had been lucky to escape with their lives.

John and Steve made it out of the wilderness that night. They hiked 4 miles through the darkness. They made it to a ranger station. They told their story to the ranger on duty.

The man was not surprised. He and other rangers had been hearing about that strange grizzly all summer.

The boys spent the night in a cabin. When they returned to their campsite the next morning, the grizzly was gone. But before it left, it had ripped apart their tent. It had smashed their lantern and eaten all their food. Cans of spaghetti and chili were torn apart.

The boys left Glacier with what little camping gear they could save. Two weeks later, they’d realize how lucky they were to make it out alive.

Shocking News

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

On August 13, the world woke up to shocking news from Glacier. During the night, two 19-year-old women had been killed by two different grizzly bears. The attacks were not related; they happened 7 miles apart. Neither grizzly had been surprised or threatened by people. The bears attacked the women as they slept in their tents.

How could this have happened?

In the days that followed, this was the question that echoed across Glacier’s forests and lakes. Never before had there been a deadly grizzly attack in Glacier. How was it possible that in a single night, two grizzlies had become killers?

Glacier’s leaders scrambled to give an answer. It was the heat, they said. Or the wildfires. Or maybe lightning had spooked the bears.

Rangers were ordered to track down the two grizzlies and euthanize them—kill them painlessly. One was a mother bear that had been seen with her two cubs at the Granite Park garbage pit. Her front paw was badly torn, likely from broken glass. The other bear was in even worse shape. It was starving and had broken glass in its teeth.

This was the skinny bear that John and Steve had seen at Trout Lake.

Finally, Glacier’s leaders were forced to face the truth: It was not heat or fires or lightning that had caused the grizzlies to turn violent. It was garbage.

For years, rangers and park leaders had known trash was a problem. All summer they had been getting complaints about grizzlies lurking near campgrounds and threatening humans.

Yet no action was taken. As a result, two women had died. Four grizzlies were also dead; the mother grizzly’s two cubs were also euthanized.

On August 13, the world woke up to shocking news from Glacier. During the night, two 19-year-old women had been killed by two different grizzly bears. The attacks happened 7 miles apart. Neither grizzly had been surprised or threatened by people. The bears attacked the women as they slept in their tents.

How could this have happened?

Never before had there been a deadly grizzly attack in Glacier. How was it possible that in a single night, two grizzlies had become killers?

Glacier’s leaders had no answer to this question. They ordered rangers to find the two grizzlies and euthanize them—kill them painlessly. One was a mother bear. This bear had been seen with her two cubs at the Granite Park garbage pit. Her front paw was badly torn, likely from broken glass. The other bear was in even worse shape. It was starving and had broken glass in its teeth.

This was the skinny bear that John and Steve had seen at Trout Lake.

Finally, Glacier’s leaders were forced to face the truth. It was the garbage in the park that had turned the grizzlies into killers.

For years, rangers and park leaders had known trash was a problem. All summer they had been getting complaints about grizzlies lurking near campgrounds and threatening humans.

Yet no action was taken. As a result, two women had died. Four grizzlies were also dead; the mother grizzly’s two cubs were also euthanized.

NATIONAL PARKS ASSOCIATION (THEN); ACCENT ALASKA.COM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (NOW)

From the early 1900s through the 1940s in Yellowstone National Park, “lunch counters” were used to lure bears for tourists’ entertainment. They were basically giant garbage heaps. Today, such practices are banned. Instead, bearproof trash cans protect bears from getting into human garbage and signs remind tourists not to feed the wildlife.

A Transformation

Nothing could change the tragic events of “the night of the grizzlies,” as that night in August became known. But those events brought about a transformation of Glacier and the rest of America’s national parks.

Rangers cleaned up the trails and campgrounds. They also installed bear-proof trash cans so that grizzlies could not eat garbage. Garbage pits like those at Granite Park were closed. At campgrounds, picnic areas were set up far away from where people slept. If a grizzly was seen near a trail, the trail would be closed. Aggressive bears would be moved to remote parts of the park.

Those new rules led to lasting change. Today, Glacier is a cleaner and healthier place for its 300 grizzlies—and for humans.

This past year, more than 3 million people visited Glacier. Like John and Steve, they walked the winding trails and looked out across the jewel-like lakes. A few even spotted grizzly bears.

And hopefully, they felt lucky.

Nothing could change the tragic events of “the night of the grizzlies,” as that night in August became known. But those events brought about a transformation of Glacier and the rest of America’s national parks.

Rangers cleaned up the trails and campgrounds. They also installed bear-proof trash cans so that grizzlies could not eat garbage. Garbage pits like those at Granite Park were closed. At campgrounds, picnic areas were set up far away from where people slept. If a grizzly was seen near a trail, the trail would be closed. Aggressive bears would be moved to remote parts of the park.

Those new rules led to lasting change. Today, Glacier is a cleaner and healthier place for its 300 grizzlies—and for humans.

This past year, more than 3 million people visited Glacier. Like John and Steve, they walked the winding trails and looked out across the jewel-like lakes. A few even spotted grizzly bears.

And hopefully, they felt lucky.