Talking Bear True Crime With Jessica Grose

Today Slate publishes “A Death in Yellowstone: On the trail of a killer grizzly bear,” an 8000-word investigation by Awl pal Jessica Grose about the search for “the Wapiti sow,” a 250-pound grizzly bear implicated in the killing of two separate visitors to Yellowstone National Park in 2011. The story is both about the hunt for the bear and the larger implications of man’s sometimes fatal interactions with nature. It’s a remarkably compelling report that you absolutely need to read. Here’s a brief conversation about the piece.

Jess Grose, I loved this report. But I am a confirmed bear aficionado. What drew you to the story?

My husband’s family has a place in rural Wyoming, about 40 minutes from the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone in Silver Gate, Montana. I went for the first time in August of 2011 — it’s remote and difficult to get to. I am not an earnest person in general, but the physical beauty of that part of the country really moved me on a visceral level. This was so surprising — I’ve always liked to hike and cross country ski but I’m not especially outdoorsy or nature loving. Before we got there, my mother-in-law told me that there had been a grizzly fatality in Yellowstone in July, and my in-laws were always talking about bears: bears they’d seen, what to do if you saw a bear while hiking, that kind of thing. I thought they were sort of out of their minds. What is the big deal about grizzly bears? But then when I was actually in the place, I completely understood. It’s something about how powerful they are and how humble you have to be when you’re in their territory. Also when I was at the Wyoming house, there was a book about grizzly bear attacks called Mark of the Grizzly, by a Montana-based writer named Scott McMillion. Each chapter is about a different bear attack, and they read like mini-true crime stories. I have always loved true crime and I tore through that book in an afternoon. Scott is a great journalist and he really made each story come alive. Then, a week after we got back to New York, there was the second grizzly attack, and I started really following the story very closely at that point, to see if there was a way I could sucker Slate into sending me back out West.

The real essence of the piece seems to be the conflict between bears and people: what happens when they confront each other and how, in cases when those confrontations turn deadly, we decide about bear punishment and justice. What did you come away feeling about all of it?

It’s such a complicated thing. I am incredibly sympathetic to the bear biologists whose job it is to figure out how to deal with bears that injure people. They love the bears, and it’s tragic for them to put them down. But at the same time I understand the point of view of people who think no bear should ever be euthanized. They’re grizzly bears — it’s impossible to really get inside their heads and determine their motivations with total certainty.

There’s a big question that is mentioned, but doesn’t get completely aired in the piece, which is how many bears is too many bears? The federal bear management people have been very successful in rejuvenating the grizzly population in the lower 48. But it’s not like in Alaska or parts of northern Canada: Wyoming and Montana and Idaho and Washington keep developing. So there’s more people, and there’s more bears, and grizzlies really need a lot of space. The males especially can have huge ranges. I worry that there’s going to be a point where locals aren’t so fond of bears anymore, and it’s really unclear what that will mean going forward. And if people keep getting mauled by bears, those locals will be totally justified in feeling freaked out and uncomfortable. It’s a terrible, primal thing to be attacked by a bear.

I know this is one of the first big works of longform journalism you’ve done in your career. Tell me a little bit about how that all came together.

The process started with my reading a piece in the Times about the bear involved in the first attack, and possibly involved in the second attack, getting euthanized. There was a quote in the piece from Yellowstone’s spokesman where he said, “We don’t really believe there is a way for us to definitely know which bear may have killed Mr. Wallace, or if more than one bear was involved in the fatal attack.” So to me that was a great mystery — how do they decide to euthanize a bear when they’re not sure which one was the culprit? Then Slate agreed to send me to Montana for five days back in October, so that I could at least begin to get sources and check out the parts of the Park where the fatalities had happened. The government puts out very elaborate investigation reports after fatalities, so I needed to wait on that to do a lot of reporting — a lot of the government folks wouldn’t talk to me until the Wallace investigation was officially closed, which didn’t happen until March.

One of the great things about working at Slate is that they have a thing called the Fresca Fellowship, where they allow staffers to take a month off their regular duties to work on a longform piece. As someone who has never written a nonfiction piece at this length before, my colleagues were incredibly generous and wonderful in helping me shape this, particularly my editor Dan Engber. It was like longform with training wheels, and Slate’s editor-in-chief David Plotz was so encouraging.

There’s a really gripping scene in the narrative where you and a bear expert encounter a mother and her cubs on the trail and are forced to back away slowly. [SPOILER: You are mauled to death.] Did you have any other experiences with actual bears, even if they were considerably less dramatic?

When we were at Yellowstone in August we saw a bear near the side of the road. When bears get that close to the road they always cause “bear jams,” because all the tourists stop to look at them and take pictures. This is actually a big problem for rangers in Yellowstone but that’s another story. That bear was definitely habituated to people — he was just doing some bear stuff, eating some grass, not acknowledging all the people gawking at him (or her!). When I went to do my reporting in October, I went to some small zoos in Montana where they had grizzly shows. After seeing the grizzly in the wild, seeing those bears — who by the way seemed very well fed and cared for — in captivity was depressing. I had never found zoos upsetting before but I think after reporting this story I won’t be able to enjoy them.

What did you find most surprising as you put this all together? How did it affect you during the process?

Some of the little details were really surprising and poignant. Things like, Yellowstone’s bear manager had to euthanize the grizzly on his birthday, and everything about how they tracked down the guilty grizz. Oh, also I kept having the most bananas dreams about bears while I was writing it. The best was the one where I was going to a grizzly bear-themed hotel in Paris because Harvey Weinstein (what?) had sent me and my husband there. Our hotel room had a cappuccino machine where the espresso came out of a grizzly bear’s mouth. I have no idea what that was about.

One of the biggest surprises was how many people survive bear attacks. The majority of people do. Grizzly bear attacks are incredibly rare — most grizzlies really avoid people. And most grizzlies who encounter people just want to scare them away from their cubs or their food — they don’t want to kill them.

“A Death in Yellowstone: On the trail of a killer grizzly bear” is online at Slate. Print and save for later, or read it now.