The human body count is climbing, and Yellowstone Park officials no longer seem quite as adamant in their "Nothing to be done; bears will be bears" approach.
Back in July, park officials said they would make no effort to capture a female grizzly that killed a back-country hiker from California, on grounds the bruin was trying to defend its cubs when it was surprised by the man and his wife.
The mauling of Brian Matayoshi, 57, of Torrance, Calif., was a purely defensive act, park spokesman Al Nash said. He added that Yellowstone typically does not try to capture or remove a bear in what he called "a wildlife incident." At the time, it was the first fatal grizzly attack inside the park in 25 years — but the third in the Yellowstone region in just over a year.
The attack occurred about 1.5 miles up the popular back-country Wapiti Lake trail, as the couple was returning to their car.
Nearby, a stunning waterfall drops hundreds of feet in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; trails along both canyon rims are normally well populated with tourists.
Matayoshi's wife, Marilyn, escaped serious injury. Nash said the couple saw the bear twice on their hike. The first time, they continued hiking. The second time, the grizzly charged and Matayoshi told his wife to run. She called 911 on her cell phone.
The woman told park officials she didn't see the bear attack her husband. When the bear went for her, Nash said, she dropped to the ground. The grizzly lifted her off the ground by the day pack she was wearing and then dropped her.
Her husband died at the scene, Nash said. "We observed both bite marks and claw marks," he said.
Park officials relied on Marilyn Matayoshi's account of the attack in deciding not to pursue the grizzly. She told rescuers the couple surprised the sow with her cubs — one of the most dangerous situations possible for humans encountering grizzlies.
"All indications are that this was a defensive attack," Nash said.
Then, on Aug. 26, another body was found. John Wallace, 59, a library district employee from Chassell, Mich., had been hiking alone on the Mary Mountain Trail, in a part of the park known for its high bear population, about eight miles from the site of Matayoshi killing.
"This time, rangers have set traps with the intent to capture and kill the bruin that attacked Wallace," if a DNA match can be made, The Associated Press reports.
There were no signs of cubs in the area of the Wallace death, nor that the attacking bear had been attracted by any exposed food.
Prior to this, the last fatal grizzly attack inside Yellowstone was in October 1986, when the mauled body of a man was found by the roadside near Otter Creek. Park officials concluded he was attacked while photographing a grizzly, as a camera and tripod were set up at the scene.
But there was also a grizzly attack last summer at a campsite just outside the park boundaries that left one camper dead and two others wounded.
Why Were They Unarmed?
The question is obvious. About 18 months ago, federal law was changed so that park officials have to respect the gun laws of the states in which their parks are located. Residents can carry sidearms openly in Montana and Wyoming, or concealed with a permit. Were any of the victims armed?
And the answer is: No. According to park spokesman Nash, neither Wallace nor the Matayoshis were carrying either firearms or bear spray.
"That change did occur," Nash told me in an August phone conversation, referring to the new edict that state gun laws be respected. But "The law is clear, that it is against the law to discharge a firearm."
A classic case of a law with an obvious intent — to prevent firearms being brandished or fired recklessly or to rob or intimidate another person — which was never meant to apply to self-defense.
So, "If you had to use your firearm, you could make the claim that you were defending someone's life and safety?" I asked.
"Absolutely, we would investigate that," Nash said. "The decision on that would be up to an assistant U.S. attorney. We have a magistrate judge with the federal court district of Wyoming," sitting within the park. "But yes, it is certainly legal for someone who chooses to carry a firearm into the back country."
Shouldn't they, then? Assuming a reasonable amount of proficiency and training in gun safety, isn't it foolish to enter grizzly country without something on your hip that starts with a "four"?
"What we advise people to do is to strongly consider purchasing and carrying a canister of bear pepper spray," Nash responds. "It has proven to be very effective when dealing with aggressive bears. And honestly our law enforcement rangers who are authorized to carry weapons on duty and do carry weapons with them into the back country, carry a canister of pepper spray."
I was skeptical. We've all heard the jokes about how hikers are urged to wear bells and carry pepper spray, and how the presence of grizzlies can be confirmed by the presence of bear scat that contains a bunch of little bells and smells of red pepper.
But Nash insists outfits like UDAP (www.udap.com/) package large canisters with a range of 30 to 40 feet, specifically meant for outdoor use on bears — a far cry from the pocket-sized squirt bottles some ladies carry on their keychains.
"It has proven to be effective. Our law enforcement staff are qualified and proficient in the use of their firearms, but still feel that the pepper spray is the tool of choice," Nash insists. "This is about how one might defend oneself should all of the other precautions fail".
"Certainly over the years we've heard form individuals who've expressed a desire to carry a sidearm with them into the back country. Certainly a valid question for one to pose to oneself is, 'Are you proficient, and how well do you feel you would react under such a stressful situation?' One doesn't have to have quite as effective an aim with a fog of pepper spray. ..."
Nash said park authorities have no way to know how many people now go armed in the park. "With the exception of some low-lying areas, we don't have any rattlesnakes. What people might see" that could concern them "would be bears and mountain lions."
In the roughly 18 months that people have been free to carry arms in the park, "We just haven't had any issues. ... With rare exception, this is a place that's visited by law-abiding people. We had 3.6 million visitors here last year."
Yellowstone's lodges and service areas are posted "No gun zones;" don't ask me why. Discharging a firearm or shooting wildlife in the park is still presumed illegal. Open carry on your person and in a vehicle is legal. Concealed carry requires permits. See http://www.nps.gov/yell/parkmgmt/lawsandpolicies.htm
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal, and author of the novel The Black Arrow and the non-fiction Send in the Waco Killers. See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.