Updated: May 30, 2019
On March 12, 2019, I learned definitively that our greatest fears for the orphaned grizzly bear cubs of Tom Miner Basin, which is situated just north of Yellowstone National Park had become a gruesome reality...
The cubs had been killed by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) after leaving the relative safety of the basin and wandering into Paradise Valley. Both cubs were determined to be females who would have been breeding age this year.
Our hearts broke with sadness, and a repressed rage surfaced, knowing very little had been done by the state to ensure the safety of both grizzly bears and humans alike in this case. The state made examples of the bears for their audacity to search out new and easy food sources, in lieu of using the opportunity to foster a climate of responsibility and tolerence like residents of the Tom Miner Basin have employed for years. Once the orphans left the tolerance neighborhood in the basin, their lot was sealed.
On the United State Geological Survey (USGS) website, the official cause of their deaths is listed as ,"know, human caused." Although the USGS may not have intended the double-entendre, the orphans were twice killed by humans: first by those who left food rewards out for them, and finally by game managers with traps and guns. The website goes on to say the orphans were subject to "management removal for frequenting residences, habituated behavior, and public safety concerns." When the orphaned cubs hit an area not bear-proofed - even though it's in the heart of grizzly country - they were in full hyperphagia (a condition of increased eating in order to fatten up for hibernation), and found a boon of available food sources/rewards.
I believe that after the caraway crop was exhausted in Tom Miner, the inquisitive little cubs been venturing out in search of another food source. The basin had yielded its easiest crop for two little grizzly bear cubs on their own, and they found themselves pinned between big, aggressive bears protecting gut piles, elk hunters around every corner in the basic and terra ingognita down in the valley. They took the path of least resistance. When they hit the valley, they found road-killed deer, residences, and businesses without bear-proof garbage containers, unattended fruit orchards, gardens still plump with root vegetables, and residences ill-prepared for their arrival. It's my understanding that one of the dubs was captured, collared, and released back up into the basin, only to find her way back to the valley and her sibling. When enough people complained, some threatening to kill the cubs themselves (despite federal protection), FWP buckled to the pressure and killed one of the females on 10/04/2019 and the other on 10/16/2018. The state absolved itself further infuriated phone calls to their offices - with the laziest and banal of all solutions: death.
The only mistakes the bears made were due to ignorance. Having been orphaned when they were less than a year old, they'd had little time to learn from their mother to avoid humans at all costs, where to find supplemental food sources, especially during hyperphagia, and how to make yourself scare when necessary. They were quite literally pinned between a rock and a hard place. Leaving the basin - which had become increasingly dangerous with the easy food mostly exhausted - was their only option for survival. They could have had no idea the rewards and consequences the valley would hold for them.
The mistakes some valley residents made were formed out of that same naiveté. Most communities bordering Yellowstone are used to grizzlies moving through, especially in the fall; but with no food rewards, the bears usually keep moving, motivated by their desire for calories. Bear proof garbage containers are encouraged and even provided. Fruit left on trees or on the ground, sloppy garbage areas, bird feeders and vegetables left in unprotected gardens are highly and publicly discouraged in these communities, and as a result grizzly bears rarely hang around. Perhaps people in the valley just weren’t prepared for grizzlies in the neighborhood — especially two big cubs who didn’t seem to have a natural fear of humans, and were feeding on everything absentmindedly left out by residents.
I don’t fault the residents of the valley for their ill-preparedness nor the orphaned cubs for doing what comes naturally just weeks before hibernation.
The lamentable fate of the orphans lies squarely on FWP and federal “authorities” (although I’m not sure what they are an authority on besides one-way tickets). These two orphans had exhibited absolutely no aggressive behavior toward humans, even though they had ample opportunity and cause. They were only taking advantage of new-found food sources when every fiber of their DNA is driving them to eat, eat, eat. FWP could have used the opportunity to foster education and tolerance, keeping the valley residents informed, empowered, and safe while the bears looked elsewhere for food those last few weeks until hibernation. There are a number of local conservation groups (including Park County Environmental Council and Save the Yellowstone Grizzly) that gladly would have teamed up with FWP to help educate people, remove roadkill, and adequately bear-proof the valley, but sadly to my knowledge, no efforts were made.
These two orphans, who had to rely on each other their most of their lives, would have potentially made great ambassador bears, helping to build a bridge from the genetic isolation of Yellowstone. If you can catch them and collar them, why not move them to the Crazy Mountains, the Cabinets or the Yaak Valley, and monitor them in lieu of slothful dispatch? Give them a chance to live or die free, instead of a terrified and gutless death in a culvert trap. There’s a myriad of advocacy groups that would have gladly pitched in financially and physically to help relocate these two orphaned cubs and give them a fighting chance but again, tragically, to my knowledge, no effort was made.
Doug Peacock once told me to never name wild animals as it deprives them of their wildness. So in the three years of following these grizzly bear cubs, I never once gave them a nickname or pet name, even as I spent dozens of weeks and hours observing, filming, and photographing them. They were only ever referred to as “The Orphans.” Doug’s advice was never far away as I heard people over the years applying names to them that should only be reserved for strippers or breakfast cereals. Now it seems state and federal agencies have taken the liberty of naming the orphans themselves. They now will forever be know as “grizzly bear 42 and grizzly bear 44, sub-adult females” on the USGS list of known and probable grizzly bear mortality for 2018, depriving them of their wildness once and for all while we watched on in horror.
I will not grieve the fate of these two miracles we had the joy and pleasure of watching grow up. I have lamented their loss and that time has passed. Their destiny was unfortunately not unique to them nor any other grizzly bear that meets with intolerance in its natural search for food and survival in an ever encroaching world. The untimely demise of these two grizzly bears, while tragic, has only galvanized our efforts to honor them the best way we know how — by telling their story. Because where the grizzly bear roams, a healthy ecosystem exists for all.
Our mission is to promote education, tolerance, and compassion for grizzly bears while we search for answers and solutions, to ensure generations to come will have the ability to walk on sacred ground: where the grizzly bears roam.