The Glacier Park Grizzly Attacks that Changed Our Relationship with Bears

night of the grizzlies

Glacier Park grizzly attacks are, today, not exceptionally rare. But they were 50 years ago, when an unimaginable night of terror unfolded in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1967, a grizzly bear dragged a 19-year old woman, Julie Helgeson, from her sleeping bag and mauled her. She died four hours later at 4:12 a.m. This was the first fatality from a bear attack since the park officially opened in 1910. Then, less than a half hour later, it happened again.

Eight miles away, as the crow flies, around 4:30 a.m., another Glacier grizzly dragged another 19-year old woman, Michelle Koons, from her sleeping bag to her death. Two separate grizzly attacks. Two dead. Same night.

Jack Olsen, at the time a senior editor for Sports Illustrated, provided the definitive account of this double-tragedy in his 1969 book, “Night of the Grizzlies.” In 2010, Montana PBS aired a documentary titled Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies, which featured interviews with living survivors of the attack, as well as park officials and hikers involved in the events of that fateful night.

The fiftieth anniversary of the night of the grizzlies reminds us of the fragile relationship we have with the wild places — whether we’re fly fishers, hunters, hikers, photographers, or mountain-bikers.

Necessary Fear

Granite Park Chalet sits just below timberline at the hub of several back-country trails. It provides a breath-taking panoramic view of ice-capped mountains. But in the mid-1960s, hikers trekked to the chalet to view grizzly bears. The grizzlies were nightly visitors due to a long-standing practice by chalet staff members. They dumped garbage and leftover food at a site about two-hundred yards from the building.

Granite Park Chalet was full at sunset on Saturday, August, 12. So hikers Roy Ducat, 18, and Julie Helgeson, 19, headed to a spot about five-hundred yards from the building. Shortly after midnight, Roy heard Julie whisper, “Play dead.” Suddenly, a blow from a grizzly bear paw knocked him five feet away. The bear began biting into his right shoulder. Then it left him and began tearing away at Julie’s body, eventually dragging her down the dark flank of the mountain where rescuers later found her.

They carried her to Granite Park Chalet, but she died after doctors staying at the chalet tried to save her life.

Eight crow-flight miles to the southwest on the other side of a majestic mountain peak, Trout Lake had its own garbage problem. Hikers left behind their trash and unused food, so bears treated the area like a feeding ground. In the summer of 1967, one underfed, underweight grizzly in the area had been terrorizing campers–including a girl scout troop.

When Michelle Koons, 19, and four other friends arrived at Trout Lake late in the afternoon of Saturday, August 12, it did not take the grizzly long to appear. The bear walked into camp and stole food as the campers ran along the lake shore to get out of its way. The group debated hiking out, but it was late in the day. So they pitched a new campsite along the lake shore, built a bonfire, and tried to settle in for the night. The bear returned briefly around 2:00 a.m. and snatched a package of cookies left on a log. Then shortly after 4:30 a.m., it returned and attacked the campers. Four of them escaped to climb nearby trees.

Michelle Koons did not. She screamed when the bear approached her. She struggled to unzip her sleeping bag, but the zipper stuck. The bear dragged her away and mutilated her.

“The incidents that night were the catalyst for the move into a whole new era of grizzly bear management,” recalls Jack Potter, Chief of Science and Resources Management in Glacier National Park.

“We could no longer stand by and either actively feed or allow garbage to be left out for grizzly bears.”

Bert Gildart, a former park ranger in Glacier, remembers flying into Trout Lake a few weeks after the fatal attack to pick up garbage. He and another ranger loaded about seventeen burlap sacks of garbage onto a Huey helicopter. It was garbage campers had left behind.

Thankfully, the policies implemented in both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks following the “night of the grizzlies” have limited grizzly attacks mainly to surprise encounters rather than predatory aggression. No longer do grizzlies scavenge food out of garbage dumps. Gone are the grizzles that became habituated and lost their fear of human beings.

Role of Humans

In 1975, grizzly bears were classified as a “threatened species” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The most recent estimates from the National Park Service show a population increase among grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from 136 in 1975 to 757 in 2014. This has been followed by a decline to 690 bears in 2016. However, the stable number of females producing cubs in Yellowstone suggests that the park may have reached the “ecological carrying capacity” for grizzlies.

So what should outdoor enthusiasts do to help manage grizzly bears and their habitat? Packing out trash and keeping clean campsites is a great place to start. Giving grizzlies their space is another. They are crowded as it is.

“The most distant place in the lower 48 states from the nearest road is 23 miles,” says Douglas Chadwick, a Wildlife Biologist and Conservationist, “which would take a bear a morning to walk out of. There is no big wild left out there. These guys are going to have to learn to live with us, which I think they are doing.”

We need to learn to live with grizzlies, too.

I still shudder when I recall a group of tourists in Yellowstone a few years ago standing outside their vehicles — with their young children — about sixty yards from a grizzly. My children were not happy when I refused to let them get out and join the crowd of onlookers. I still remember making eye contact with a park ranger who was on patrol. He returned my glance with a shrug and a look which seemed to communicate, “I’m not happy about this either, but there’s not much I can do.”

This kind of behavior puts grizzlies at risk just as much as it puts humans at risk.

According to the National Park Service, “There were 58 known and probable grizzly bear mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2016. Thirty-eight were attributed to human causes. Four were of undetermined cause, 4 were natural deaths, and 14 [are] still under investigation.”

There are, of course, more complex issues related to grizzly bear management. Within the last few weeks, the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been delisted from its status as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act. Some outdoor enthusiasts celebrate this. Others are outraged. There are good people (and arguments) on both sides. We must continue to listen to each other and work together to insure management practices which will allow grizzlies and humans to co-exist.

No Danger Free Zone

On June 29, 2016, in Glacier National Park, Brad Treat, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer, rounded a blind curve on his mountain bike at about 20-25 miles per hour and ran into a grizzly. The surprise encounter resulted in the grizzly mauling and killing Treat.

No amount of management can make the wilds a danger-free zone.

Last fall, my podcast partner, Dave Goetz, and I fly fished a couple days in Yellowstone National Park. One morning, we came across a fresh set of grizzly bear tracks. Thankfully, we had no bear encounter. But a week later, two fly fishers a few miles from where we were was fishing stumbled into a grizzly bear and narrowly escaped when it charged them.

Whenever I fly fish in grizzly bear country in Montana and Wyoming, I follow the standard safety protocol. I make noise, pack out my garbage, avoid going alone, and always carry bear spray. I did the same when I lived in Montana for two decades and hiked and bow-hunted elk in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain bikers are, perhaps, more vulnerable to surprise encounters due to the high rate of speed at which they can approach a grizzly. Chris Servheen, who served on the board that reviewed the tragic death of Brad Treat, cautions mountain bikers to take it slow when their sight-distance is limited. He offers this advice to mountain bikers in grizzly country:

    When the trail is thick with vegetation or has curves, we recommend you slow down and shout when approaching blind curves. Speed and noise are the factors that get people when they’re out on their bikes. They’re moving faster and quieter.”

Some outdoor enthusiasts prefer carrying a .44 magnum to a canister of bear spray. Of course, firearm use is prohibited in Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks. But even in national forests or private land where firearm use is legal, I’ll take a canister of bear spray over a sidearm every time.

First, while its effects are temporary, bear spray usually incapacitates a grizzly instantly. Even a bear shot in the vital organs can keep coming.

Second, bear spray is the only safe way to get a grizzly off of a human being during an attack. Several years ago, I bow-hunted elk with a friend in Taylor Fork, a grizzly-dense drainage just north of Yellowstone National Park. We saw a lot of grizzly sign—both scat and overturned logs and rocks—but never encountered a bear.

The following fall, my friend was hunting the same area with an orthopedic surgeon when a grizzly charged them. The bear attacked the surgeon, eventually breaking his fibula, ripping gashes in his thigh and arm, and tearing off his ear. My friend charged the bear and shot it with a cloud of bear spray. Thankfully, the sow and her cubs took off running.

There was no way my friend could have attempted a shot at the grizzly without the risk of shooting the surgeon he was trying to protect.

Finally, the goal is to rescue a human from being mauled — not to destroy a bear.

There is no reason to eliminate a grizzly that attacks in self-defense. Defensive attacks, unlike predatory attacks, like those on the night of the grizzlies do not increase the likelihood that the bear will attack again. The grizzly which killed Brad Treat a year ago did not consume any part of its victim’s body. Nor did it attempt to cache the body by covering it with dirt or rocks. Unlike the “garbage bears” of the 1960s, this grizzly disappeared and has not developed a pattern of bothering hikers or mountain bikers.

Life after the Night of the Grizzlies

Today, about 1500 grizzly bears roam in the lower 48 states. Well, they don’t actually roam any longer. They are confined to particular areas in the intermountain west. About 800 grizzlies live in Montana, including 300 or so in Glacier National Park. Another 600 members of the Ursus arctos horribilis subspecies live in Wyoming in the Yellowstone-Teton area. The combined number of grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming includes the 690 in Yellowstone National Park. An additional 100 grizzlies live in northern and eastern Idaho.

Over forty years after the “night of the grizzlies” in Glacier National Park, the father of victim Michelle Koons expressed no ill will towards grizzly bears. In fact, he expressed sympathy for them. In an interview, he said: “I always would think about what civilization has done to bears, forcing them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

Survival of both grizzlies and humans means learning to adapt and keep at a healthy distance from the other species. The grizzlies are learning to do this. Humans must continue to do so as well.