It’s hard to sleep in a tent in Glacier National Park without thinking of “Night of the Grizzlies,” a book by Jack Olsen that details the events of Aug. 13, 1967, when two young women were killed by two different grizzly bears in remote parts of the park. It was the first fatal bear attack in the park since it opened in 1910.
A new documentary that will air on Montana PBS on Monday at 8 p.m., called “Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies,” revisits that night and explains how the tragic story changed bear management practices and helped change the fate of grizzly bears in the United States.
The co-producers, Gus Chambers and Paul Zalis, interviewed several witnesses, park staff and friends of the girls who were killed — Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, both park employees — to recreate in gripping detail the horrific night.
Roy Ducat was camping outside of Granite Park Chalet with his girlfriend — Helgeson. The chalet was full that particular night so the young couple slept in a campground nearby — no tent, just sleeping bags. Trash had been routinely dumped outside the chalet to attract bears for the benefit of tourists. A park ranger interviewed for the documentary said: “It was a tragedy waiting to happen.”
In the middle of the night, Ducat was awakened by Helgeson whispering “Play dead.” And then he smelled the bear’s foul breath. The bear ripped Ducat from his sleeping bag and then went after Helgeson.
“She started screaming,” Ducat explained.
As he carried her off, Ducat said he heard her say, “It hurts.”
Later that night, a search party found Helgeson. She was barely alive. The group carried her back to the chalet, where a surgeon, who was one of the guests, tried to save her. She had lost too much blood. A priest, Father Tom Connolly, gave her the sacrament of Last Rites and prayed with her as she died.
Meanwhile, at Trout Creek Campground, about 8 miles away from the chalet, Koons was dragged off by another grizzly bear as her friends escaped by climbing trees. The bear, which had been attracted to the campsite by all the trash previous campers had regularly left, had invaded Koons’s campsite earlier in the evening but returned in the middle of the night.
Among Koons’s friends was Paul Dunn, who coincidentally also had been invited by Helgeson and Ducat to join them on their chalet trip.
“I was meant to be in an experience with a grizzly that night,” Dunn said.
The documentary not only shows the grief of those involved in the tragedy, but also how human behavior contributed to the attacks. Before that night, few realized how dangerous a bear habituated to the presence of humans can be.
“(Back then) I just thought wild animals stay away from people,” Ducat said.
Since that night in 1967, many steps have been taken to protect the grizzly bear, including the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
But as the documentary’s narrator J.K. Simmons says, the most important step are changes in bear management that separate humans from bears and give bears plenty of room.
“The night of the grizzles was the night that we learned the hard way how little we knew about grizzlies,” said wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick.
Lifestyles Editor Peggy O’Neill: 447-4074, firstname.lastname@example.org