‘Night of the grizzlies’: Then and now

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We’ve come a long way since the tragic events of the so-called “night of the grizzlies” shook our community 50 years ago.

Feeding wildlife — even bears — was commonplace at Glacier National Park in the late 1960s. And while technically against regulations at the time, garbage was regularly dumped at park lodges and campsites, often with the intent of luring wildlife to these areas. Tourists reveled in the spectacle and would flock to watch bears feed on garbage in the evening. In some locations in Glacier, bleachers were even erected to cater to the crowds.

Today, this all seems unbelievable, even crazy, given what we know about wildlife behavior, and more specifically, the danger food-conditioned bears present to hikers and campers.

But everything about that era changed after the night of Aug. 13, 1967. Two young women, Michele Koons and Julie Helgeson, were sadly killed in separate grizzly bear maulings at two different campsites in Glacier. Almost overnight, national parks nationwide drew a sharp line between humans and bears.

At Glacier, rangers were ordered to clean up garbage dumping areas, campers began hanging caches of food away from campsites, and the days of feeding grizzlies for entertainment were over. A permit program was also established to limit the number of campers at backcountry sites.

We learned from the “night of the grizzlies,” and many of the same policies born from the tragedy form the foundation of our parks’ wildlife management plans today.

As we take time this week to remember that fateful night in 1967, we can take some solace in knowing that the two lives lost weren’t for naught.

Michele Koons’ sister Teri Culpepper said it best when reflecting on the tragedy during a recent trip back to Glacier.

“Out of the tragic circumstances of her (and Julie’s) death have come changes for good that will benefit humans and wildlife for years to come.”

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