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Gentle Bear Shot Because No One Understood Him

<p> Marcel Vrab </p>

When I made my first trip to Glacier National Park for seasonal work the summer of 2012, I was already something of a self-taught bear expert. I had read dozens of books on the subject - though my own book was still a year away from publication - and even worked with orphaned grizzlies at a sanctuary in Alaska, so I reacted with less dread than some of my colleagues at the news that a 400 pound black bear (the latest in a family line of black bears who had resided in the same area for decades) had taken up residence in the town of West Glacier and was enjoying the cornucopia of berries and dandelions that were proliferating around the employee cabins where I would be living. "He's a sweet bear," I had been assured by some who had already come to know him.

Despite the number of encounters that had been related to me and how familiar the locals were with him, the bear - who had been described to me as "enormous" - remained maddeningly elusive. We finally encountered one another near dusk on a stormy August night. As I was walking the drive to my cabin, a large shape appeared in the gloom, lumbering up the path toward me. I had seen my fair share of black bears in the wild and knew how small they typically were but, as I quickly discovered, the stories of this bear were not exaggerated: this guy was huge! With a heavily muscled, trim body and thick tree trunk legs, this bear could have given just about any grizzly in the park a run for its money in the size department.

By this time, the bear had become something of a legend among the locals of the small community. Each morning, it was not hard to find excited talk of where the bear had been seen the previous evening. If he failed to appear for a few days, concern for his well-being spread until he once again resurfaced. Never once did he damage property, raid garbage, or ever attempt to gain access to anything other than natural foods. Never once was he exposed to human violence or aggression and he returned that respect to everyone he met, even during close encounters. He was a rare enigma, a fascinating and complex creature and I wanted to know more about him.

Apparently he felt the same way about me because he inexplicably began seeking me out.

I was catching up on email late one night in the cabin when I heard the now familiar cracking and snapping of sticks that signaled the bear's approach. I listened as he sat with a "whuff" outside the door leading from my bedroom to the forest behind the cabin. He leaned his massive frame against the door, the wood cracking and groaning, then slid onto the ground. After several minutes, I began to hear deep breathing and then light snoring as the bear slept. He remained there most of the night, only occasionally shifting position, groggily swatting at bugs around his face, or groaning in his sleep before resuming the soft snoring. A not unpleasant animal odor was present throughout and when I dozed off and awoke some hours later, the smell was gone and so too, I knew, was the bear.

When I related this experience to my colleagues, they didn't seem too surprised. "Of course he came to you," they said. "You're the bear man." I laughed this off at first but admittedly had to wonder if he could somehow sense my interest in him. Was it just coincidence he ended up at my door or did he recognize me as a benefactor?

I'm only aware of two or three other occasions in which he returned to sleep outside my cabin, but I often awoke in the dark to thumps, bumps, and scrapes on the cabin walls. It was getting to be late in the season and the natural foods that had been growing in that area were becoming scarce. I could find nothing in the immediate vicinity of my cabin that would hold his interest. His choice to sleep there seemed completely random.

It was not long thereafter that I moved across town to take a new job. I had moved into a rooftop apartment above my place of work and the old cabin now stood empty. Going to bed late one night, I was switching off the lights when I happened to look out the door. There, to my astonishment, on the roof of the building, was the bear following the wooden boardwalk to my door. He came straight to the glass and we made eye contact through it. He put his nose to my face and curled up outside the door for a nap. To say I was stunned was an understatement. My jaw literally hit the floor! He seemingly had gone looking for me and had somehow tracked me down. I could no longer use the word "coincidence" to explain these encounters.

We met each other one last time on a rainy afternoon a few days later as I was walking to the Flathead River. He emerged into the road from a field adjacent to me and we stood regarding each other for a few minutes from a distance of 100 yards or more before he turned away and followed the railroad tracks around the corner out of town and out of sight.

When it came time to make a decision about returning to Glacier in summer 2014, the prospect of finding that bear and seeing how things would progress was the motivating factor in persuading me to pack my bags and once again uproot my life for a few months.

I arrived in West Glacier in early June, settled into my old cabin, and waited. June became July, the gooseberry crop bloomed, and the bear did not appear. I waited impatiently, anticipating his return, but when July became August and he still hadn't shown, I began to worry. Twice I had very strange dreams about him: one in which I was walking the drive to the cabin when he came out of the woods, approached me, and put his nose in my hand, and another in which he sat outside the screen door of the cabin looking in while I sat in the living room looking back. Something about that particular dream was eerie and left me uncomfortable. I now feared the worst.

Those fears were confirmed in late August when I learned the bear had been shot the previous winter when an out-of-towner panicked at the sight of the animal walking through the yard of his rental home. An illegal kill, but I highly doubt any action was taken against the man, though some kind certainly should have been. I spent that evening sitting on the bank of the Flathead River feeling sad, heartbroken, angry, and helpless when a young subadult black bear suddenly appeared, walked down the beach past me, crossed the river, and began foraging on the far shore. This young bear had been around all summer and I had seen him once or twice (and he was no doubt part of the same family line of West Glacier black bears), but his appearance now seemed almost too perfect to be a coincidence. I took it as a sign that, even though the bear I had come to know was gone, his spirit was still very much alive.

As someone who had long been advocating peaceful coexistence with bears, this senseless killing was to me a direct result of everything I had been speaking out against: needless fear of bears. An animal who was in every way a gentle giant was slaughtered on sight just because of what he was and because of what we've made bears out to be. It angers me, it sickens me, and for a time it made me wonder if there was any point in continuing to push a message that seems meant to fall on deaf ears, but now my hope is that through his story, he can be seen as a model for how peaceful human/bear encounters can be once we learn to unlearn our mutual fear of one another. Through this, perhaps his death will not be in vain.

I think now of the dreams I had about him early in the season before I ever knew of his fate - dreams that seemed to hint at his fate - and I wonder: were they really only dreams or was he there to meet me after all?