This week Glacier National Park rangers closed down access to the Granite Park Chalet area after hikers had several close encounters with grizzly bears.
This was the right thing to do. But I also have to openly question if this, at least in part, is a Park Service created problem.
Granite Park has always been a popular destination, for humans and for bears. For bears, it provides a wealth of food sources and habitats. For humans, it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet and the chalet provides a way to enjoy the landscape while sleeping behind stone walls — a comfort afforded to those that are bear adverse.
Granite Park has always seen a lot of hikers in the summer months, and bear encounters in the past have been well documented and even fatal for humans. Who can forget the infamous “Night of the Grizzlies” when a food-conditioned bear killed a woman camper?
But since then the Park Service has made great strides in garbage control and people control.
Until the past few years, that is.
Since Glacier instituted a free shuttle service to Logan Pass and the Loop, crowds on the Highline Trail and to Granite Park have blossomed, not just in the hundreds, but the thousands.
A 2017 study found that approximately 30,000 people hiked the Highline Trail in July alone. That’s about 1,000 a day, give or take.
At that rate, a grizzly bear feeding along the trail would have no break from human encounters. In this age of Instagram and “selfies” we shudder to think what the bears are subject to each and every day.
So when the Park reports grizzly bears “huffing, drooling, shaking heads, and walking visitors back off of trails,” we have to suspect that it’s probably not the bear, or bear’s fault.
Perhaps the bears are simply sick and tired of the droves of humans.
We’ve long been educated that grizzlies and humans don’t really mix. Over the years we’ve closed down thousands of miles of roads in our National Forests to protect bruins, and it’s worked fabulously — grizzly bears are more common than they have been in 50 years.
So it makes us a bit sad that the Park Service continues this course of pumping crowds into pristine bear habitat, when it knows full well that it’s bad for bears and ultimately, could be very bad for an innocent hiker, who doesn’t know any better.
We already have a man missing in the Highline Trail area and we don’t really know what happened to him — his body was never found.
It’s time to for the Park to seriously rethink the shuttle service. Right now, the bears actually deserve some credit. They may have huffed and puffed, but they haven’t hurt anyone.
The next time, things could go very differently.
Chris Peterson is the editor of the Hungry Horse News.