Except for being around humans, the bear posed no immediate threat. And Game and Fish said it hadn’t handled the bear before, so it’s not like it had a penchant for trips into town. Still, it’s the agency’s policy to kill adult male bears when captured, even if its the first time. Neighboring states have similar rules. Some, like Colorado, have a two-strike policy, which means the bear could only be killed if it’s been caught before.
And it’s not just states that regularly kill wildlife. The federal government has an agency almost entirely dedicated to killing animals, many of them predators. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, which animal conservationists have called a “rogue agency,” killed 2.7 million animals, including 305 cougars, 322 wolves, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, 1,186 red foxes, and 61,702 coyotes. As a writer for the magazine High Country News pointed out, that’s one dead coyote every eight and a half minutes.
It doesn’t take much to authorize an extermination. The agents with Arizona Fish and Game had no choice in the matter, because the agency’s policy requires it to kill captured adult bears. As for Wildlife Services, all it takes is a concerned rancher or homeowner to ask.
In response to the killing, a local citizen started a petition to change Arizona Game and Fish’s policy for killing bears, and just about every big newspaper in the state wrote about it. The petition calls for an “end to summary execution of male bears in Arizona,” saying that “living in Flagstaff, surrounded by National Forest, is a blessing and we accept the risk of encountering wildlife, including predators.”
The black bear is in no threat of dying out. Ursus americanus is the smallest species of bear in North America, and it lives almost anywhere with enough trees to hide in. Black bears can be found in Canada, the whole stretch of the U.S. East Coast and down to Florida, in the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Mexico’s Sierra Madre. As was the case with the bear in Flagstaff, they’re not always black. Some are colored white, blond, cinnamon, light and dark brown, or a black so deep it’s almost purple. As omnivores, they eat berries and grass, fish and elk, and regularly roam 100 miles to find food. And sometimes in their wanderings, they come across humans.
Arizona’s policy today––although it’s been updated several times since––is based in part on a black bear attack in 1996. Before then, Arizona Game and Fish would catch bears who wandered into towns or campgrounds, tranquilize them, then turn them loose in another area. But in the previous two years leading up to the attack on the girl, the Tucson Citizen reported eight other times bears had come into camps or towns or mauled people. The attack that changed the state’s policy toward bears involved a 16-year-old girl who’d fallen asleep in a Boy Scout campground in Coronado National Forest, a mountainous park at the state’s southern end. She’d gone back to the tent with the smell of s’mores on her face, and a bear poked its head into her tent, bit her shoulder, her thigh, and swiped at her head. A headline in the Tucson Citizen a day after the bear attacked the girl read: “Some bears may be exiled, killed.” And from the article it seemed Game and Fish would not only change its policy regarding bears, but that in the days after the attack, agents would pursue and “destroy” some bears living in the national forest.