Opinion: How Can a Bear Be ‘Unnatural’?

adventure journal bears arent naturalOn Father’s Day in 2007, a black bear fatally mauled an 11-year-old boy who was camping with his family in Utah’s Uinta National Forest. The family had gathered at an undeveloped, dispersed campsite 1.2 miles away from an established campground with amenities. The incident was the first documented black bear fatality in the state.

The same bear had raided coolers and pawed at a camper’s head just the day before, and the state Department of Wildlife Resources sent wildlife officers out to track it down and remove it. But they were unsuccessful, and the next evening the bear attack occurred.

The boy’s death was a heart-wrenching tragedy, but it is making news six years later because the family sued both the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. They claimed that state authorities had already identified the bear as a problem but did not give them ample warning that there was an aggressive bear in the area. No warnings were posted and the road to the undeveloped campsite remained open. A ruling on their suit against the Forest Service awarded them nearly $2 million.

A Utah district court, however, dismissed the family’s suit against the state last fall, decreeing that a black bear, an animal native to Utah’s Wasatch Range, is a natural condition on the land and the state cannot assume responsibility for the bear’s aggression.

The family appealed and the case slowly made its way to the state’s Supreme Court. This July 19, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the state had, in fact, a duty to protect the boy from the bear and that a bear is not a “natural condition” on public lands.

The Supreme Court’s decision bumps the case down to the district court, where a trial will now occur to determine if the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources is at fault for the boy’s death. Utah’s wildlife agency has yet to issue a statement about the new ruling.

To be a “natural condition,” the Supreme Court said, something must “have a close tie to land itself” and “persist on the land,” and not be transitory or temporary. According to the Utah Supreme Court, the transient nature of animals, as they move from one place to another, takes wildlife out of the expected, natural condition of public lands. The court decreed that natural conditions of the land are limited to things that are “topographical in nature” or directly connected to topography, like ravines, rocks and resulting rockslides, and snowpack and resulting avalanches.

For inexplicable reasons, the court’s definition fails to include wildlife. Utah is a state with an extensive mosaic of urban-wilderness lands. Most of Utah’s population is jammed into the Wasatch Front, with cities pushing against the mountains that curtail their growth to the east. Residents flock to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, making it one of the most heavily used parcels of public land in the nation.

Though it is wonderful to see people embrace their public lands, it is odd and bizarre for the state’s Supreme Court to decide that wildlife is not natural and therefore not welcome. The national forests that surround the Salt Lake Valley are inevitably going to host human-wildlife interactions, with some of those interactions joyful and Kodak-moment-worthy, and some of them violent.

The court’s decision signifies more than the state’s absolute duty to protect visitors from aggressive wildlife. It also signifies that we are one step further away from understanding the complicated dance that arises from living so close to wilderness. I fear the day when all visitors will expect the state to protect them from everything uncomfortable — from bee stings and sunburn to sprained ankles.

Perhaps there is some comfort in the words of Justice Jill Parrish, who authored the dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s ruling. She wrote: “Long before the borders of Utah were drawn, the land, in its natural condition, contained large and small indigenous wildlife in addition to its topographical features. And today, conservation efforts aimed at preserving the natural condition of Utah’s public lands include support for and rehabilitation of native species. To read ‘natural condition’ in the limited context of topographical features ignores an entire segment of the unique natural conditions of Utah’s public lands.”

At least she understands that the natural condition of public lands includes wild animals, and that it is up to us to both respect and expect their presence.


This article originally appeared in High Country News. Photo by Shutterstock

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.


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{ 10 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Craig Rowe

    Utah, indeed. We spend so much time there but always find some reason to look at one another and say, “We could never live amongst them.”

    Would it be wrong to throw Idaho into that category?

    Should that Canyons to Solitude tram find its legs, I’m left to wonder how moose will be treated given this ruling.

  • KatieSue

    I volunteer for the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation guiding kids snowshoe fieldtrips. We make an extreme effort to emphasize respect of wildlife and watershed. Keeping a distance, leaving no trace, that the land belongs to everyone but it is the animals’ home and they get first dibs and rights to it before us. Understanding how the ecology of the wilderness works. Our thinking is that if we can get to these kids first and teach them the correct way to appreciate this land from the start and give them a good experience they’ll continue in that direction and spread the word. Leading to respectful responsible adults. I like to think I’m making a small difference in the up and coming generations and that someday they’ll understand that things like his happen. Sad as these things are suing for tax money that could be better spent somewhere else doesn’t fix anything. I live in Utah, I’m not from here, but I love it enough to stick around and help out.

  • fridgidwaddle

    I just want to thank all those who like it in Utah but don’t live here. Your shortsightedness is about the only thing stopping every skier, mt biker and climber from invading my adopted home of over a decade.

    Every place has it’s weirdness. Embrace it or ignore it, but don’t judge the whole by the part.

  • Nate

    I agree with Fridge. It’s the weirdness that has prevented this place from being as overrun as the Front Range. The pro’s outweigh the con’s.

    As a parent that commonly spends time with kids in the wild places, I greatly sympathize with this family’s loss and actually agree that the USFS has some responsibility to inform about known extenuating hazards, but I don’t think they are responsible for the bear’s actions. The suit and the decision are both unwarranted.

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