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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grizzly Bear to Get Death Penalty for Being a Bear

If the captured grizzly bear, who recently killed a camper and injured two others in Yellowstone National Park, is successfully identified today by DNA tests as the "perpetrator" of the attack, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department intends to kill her in no uncertain terms. What is uncertain is the fate of her three cubs, who have also been captured, but who have not yet been identified as "co-conspirators" in the attack. If they, too, are found "guilty," they also will be killed.

While the mauling of two people and the death of a third is quite tragic, the response by the Parks department seems equally tragic and highly unnecessary. The circumstances surrounding why the bear attacked are unknown; regardless, killing this bear (or her cubs) in some twisted act of retribution or in the hopes of preventing another attack is indefensible.

I will argue that the real victims here are the grizzly bears, whose numbers have been steadily declining due to human intrusion. In fact, the grizzly bear has just been reinstated on the Endangered Species List. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a mere 1,500 grizzlies now inhabit the U.S. mainland, down from as many as 100,000 in the early 1800s. Natural grizzly bear habitats, like Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding areas, have been shrinking as grizzlies are pushed out for man-made endeavors: drilling, logging, cattle ranching (meat consumption), motor-vehicle recreation, tourism, rural sprawl and mining. On top of that, the bears are now starving and unable to feed themselves or their families because climate change has decimated the grizzly bear's main food source, the whitebark pine. The mountain pine beetle has nearly wiped out the whitebark pine because warmer temperatures have allowed the beetle to travel farther north for longer periods of time.

When grizzly bear habitat is protected, so are grizzlies and so are people. Habitat loss is increasing the interactions humans have with wildlife, the results of which are not always pleasant, as many animals know all too well. The campers, however, were in a location where grizzly bears are often seen and warning signs are posted.

This awful incident may have been prevented if grizzlies had a safe place to go, away from humans where there is enough food to eat and no one to harass them. Perhaps, this mother sow was simply behaving the way we know bears to act sometimes. Or, maybe she was at her wits end. Who knows? But taking her life and the lives of her babies is unjustifiable; it will not bring back the dead, nor will it put an end to the larger problem of species and habitat loss.

Photo courtesy of NRDC

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