Night of the Grizzlies, a book by Jack Olsen, made Glacier National Park infamous when it was released in 1969. The book documented two separate cases where young women were attacked and killed by grizzly bears within the park on August 13, 1967.
Back when the attacks happened, it was common for national parks to have garbage dumps in the park where “bear shows” took place when grizzlies would come to forage for food. One of the attacks, near Granite Park Chalet, took place near the dump where grizzly bears frequented (Desch, 2007).
The other attack took place at Trout Lake, an area where a grizzly sow had been frequenting for some time and had been a problem all summer.
After the attacks, the park service took action, eliminating the problem bears and taking a closer look at bear safety procedures. The garbage dump at Granite Park was removed, and more action was taken to alert hikers if there was a bear frequenting an area. These days, if there is any human-bear interaction, the trail is immediately closed to all hikers until the bear is suspected to have moved out of the area. Signs at every trailhead remind hikers to make noise and hike in larger groups.
Since then, grizzly-human contact has been greatly reduced, but the problem of habituated (desensitized to human contact) wildlife in GNP still remains. This summer (2014), the National Park Service conducted a study of the habituated population of mountain goats near the Logan Pass area, comparing them to wild goats. Six mountain goats, five females and one male, received radio collars the prior summer in order to track the goats’ movements.
According to the National Park Service, preliminary observations revealed that habituated goats display different herding behavior and use habitat differently than wild goats, using meadow, tree and road habitat versus the cliffs and ledges primarily used by wild goats. In this study, NPS officials also plan to study human-goat interactions, particularly patterns of habituation and goat-directed aggression to humans (Germann, 2014).
Park regulations require visitors to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from any other animal (Germann, 2014), but most tourists rarely follow those guidelines. Mountain goats in the Logan Pass area of GNP are known to demonstrate especially habituated behavior, approaching and grazing with humans only about five to ten feet away.
Working up at Logan Pass, I was able to experience these habituated goats firsthand: on our first day, a female mountain goat trotted right up to us:
The goat dipped her head a couple of times, stared and then turned away and began grazing.
In another instance, a female mountain goat and kid approached us and began to sniff our packs, which were about ten yards from where we were standing. We were approached by goats almost every day we worked up at Logan Pass, a total of about eight days.
The goats of Logan Pass have become extremely habituated due to the fact that the area sees a lot of tourist traffic. Many tourists will walk off-trail (against park regulations) and approach these goats to get a better photograph.
Another species that has become habituated due to human activity is the Columbian ground squirrel. These squirrels have demonstrated aggressive behavior in the Logan Pass area due to tourists feeding them.
One day, our team had settled down at a spot near the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center to eat some lunch. Nearby, a family of tourists sat, also eating their lunch. A few moments after sitting down, a Columbian ground squirrel approached one of the tourists, a girl who was probably about thirteen or fourteen. The family oohed and ahhed at the squirrel, who was obviously begging for food. The girl took a Dorito out of her lunch sack and held it out to the squirrel, who promptly took it and ate it, running away to its den.
Moments later, the same squirrel ran up to me as I sat, back turned, resting my hand on the rock ledge.
Lindsay warned me. “There’s a squirrel right behind you.”
I turned around. There it was, practically sniffing my hand, inches away (pretty freaky if you ask me). I attempted to shoo the squirrel away, but it followed my hand movements, expecting food. At one point, Nikki even threw a rock about a foot away from the squirrel to startle it, but the squirrel ran after the rock, thinking it was food! A few moments later, the squirrel ran back to the Dorito girl, who proceeded to hand it a piece of saran wrap. The squirrel ran off with the plastic, attempting to eat it.
Just then, a park ranger walked by. Noticing the family’s fascination with the squirrel, she warned them not to feed it.
“We weren’t,” the father of the family lied.
I went back to eating my peanut butter and banana sandwich, thinking my backpack was safe where it was—on my back.
All was quiet until I heard Martha: “That’s kind of creepy.”
I turned around. To my horror, the same Dorito-eating, Saran-wrap munching ground squirrel was right behind me, sniffing my backpack (should I emphasize that it was on my back?) I made punching motions at the squirrel, trying to make a mean face and be aggressive (it didn’t work that well.) The squirrel eventually retreated on his own accord, going back to begging Dorito girl for more of her lunch.
The lunchtime run-in with Dorito girl and Dorito squirrel was bad enough, but it gets worse. My last field day at Logan Pass, I saw a young boy crying to his mother and holding up his finger. Apparently, he had held out his hand to a Columbian ground squirrel. The squirrel, thinking he was offering food, then proceeded to bite the little boy’s finger.
Encounters like these happen daily. It is against park regulations to feed wildlife, and can result in a fine of up to $5,000.
The habituation of wildlife such as bears, goats and squirrels is not without consequence. When wildlife become accustomed to human presence, they lose their instincts to be afraid of predators, lose the ability to forage for food, and are more likely to be aggressive towards humans. According to GNP officials, there are no records of mountain goats injuring visitors, but they have had some semi-aggressive goats in the Logan Pass area (Repanshek, 2010). These goats can be attracted to salt in the form of sweat on the straps of a pack (in our case, our packs were sitting just a few feet from where we were) or in human urine. Park officials recommend keeping your pack close to you and not urinating on or near trails (Repanshek, 2010).
On July 27, 2014, a little less than a week after my arrival in GNP, a Texas hiker was traversing the Mt. Brown trail alone early that morning. According the hiker’s account, the 57-year old was charged by a bear who came up from an area below the trail. The hiker discharged his bear spray, and the bear appeared undeterred. The hiker then fired his handgun at the bear, causing the bear to run away, and leaving the hiker unscathed. The hiker then quickly returned to the trailhead to warn other hikers of the situation (Tribune, 2014).
Park law allows the possession of a firearm in a national park, but it is illegal to discharge a firearm within the national park.
Days later, on August 1, a North Carolina hiker was walking on a cliff section of GNP’s Highline Trail when a grizzly bear began walking toward him, going in the opposite direction. The bear had been shooed away from the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center parking lot just minutes earlier by a park official. In order to avoid the bear, the hiker climbed down on a scree cliff. The bear ran by the area where the hiker had stood minutes before and continued on its way (Devlin, 2014).
To avoid surprising a bear while hiking, it’s important to make noise, especially around streams, blind corners on the trail, downwind from a bear, and in areas of dense vegetation. Always carry bear spray and travel in larger groups.
July 2014 saw a record-breaking 700,000 visitors to GNP (AP, 2014). With increased tourist traffic, wildlife-human encounters are inevitable. However, with the proper knowledge of wildlife safety procedures and park regulations, human-aimed aggression of habituated park animals can be avoided.
Associated Press. Record number of visitors to Glacier park in July. The Missoulian, 15 August 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
Desch, Heidi. Night of the grizzlies—40 years later. Hungry Horse News, 9 August 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
Devlin, Vince. Glacier National Park: Close encounters of a grizzly kind on Highline Trail. The Missoulian, 1 August 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
Germann, Denise, 2014. Mountain Goat Study Continues. National Park Service [Online]. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
Repanshek, Kurt. How Might Fatal Attack by Mountain Goat Change Backcountry Dynamics in National Parks? National Parks Traveler, 24 October 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2014.
Tribune Staff. Hiker shoots bear in Glacier National Park. Great Falls Tribune, 26 July 2014. Retrieved 20 August 2014.