BILLINGS — After a man hunting near Cody, Wyoming, over the weekend survived an attack from a female grizzly bear with two cubs, it's a reminder that even if you take all necessary precautions, there's still risk of a wildlife encounter while out in the woods.
“Even though you try to do all of these things to be safe in bear country, there’s still unfortunately these times where things just don’t go right," said Dan Smith, regional wildlife supervisor for Wyoming Game & Fish Department.
Smith supervises wildlife biologists and game wardens in the Cody region of Wyoming, which stretches from the Big Horn Basin at the Montana / Wyoming border south to Thermopolis and includes the area from the Big Horn Mountains to Yellowstone National Park.
Smith said the hunter and his group were hiking on Grizzly Ridge Trail above Grizzly Creek Drainage when they had a surprise encounter with the sow grizzly.
“All indications are these guys were trying to do everything right. They were glassing ahead. They had bear spray. They were trying to look where they were going by using binoculars and glassing from higher places into places they were going to walk and try to be bear aware. Unfortunately, this still occurred," Smith said.
During the attack, the sow bear was shot and killed by members of the hunting party, Smith said. The injured hunter and his party, who were about five miles from the trailhead, rode on horseback to the north side of the Shoshone River to meet first responders.
It's still unclear what motivated the bear to attack, but the surprise of the sudden meeting was likely at play, Smith said.
“It may have been that the bear wasn’t aware that they were there or it may have been she was defending her cubs. There may have been some other thing that we’re not even aware of, but it definitely just was a surprise, sudden encounter at close range with a bear," Smith said.
Although bear attacks and wildlife encounters regularly make the news in the Rocky Mountain Region, Smith said grizzly attacks are rare.
"It’s not common. Since 2010, we’ve had 30 injuries and three fatalities involving grizzly bears," Smith said.
Smith said fish and game officials made the unfortunate decision to euthanize the two grizzly cubs. Grizzly bears are on the Endangered Species List, and Wyoming officials at the scene spoke on the phone with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make the choice, Smith said.
"Ultimately, due to the remote location, due to the condition of the cubs and the situation at hand, unfortunately those cubs had to be euthanized," Smith said.
Smith said the cubs were born this spring. Bear cubs will normally be born in the den in spring and spend the summer with their mother to fatten up for winter hibernation. After the winter, the cubs will generally strike out on their own without further help from their mother.
Smith said these cubs were not old enough to provide for themselves on their own.
“These were cubs born this spring. With their size and that location, they would have not been able to survive the winter on their own. They would have either starved to death or they would have been eaten by another bear or wolf," Smith said.
The fish and game personnel didn't have the option to trap and relocate the cubs to a place that could rear them, due to their remote location five miles up the trail.
“Unfortunately, with that remote location, there was not really a way to do that. This is not a place that you can drive to or get traps to. So trying to capture them and move them out of that location would have been extremely difficult, if possible at all," Smith said.
This time of year in the early fall, bears are hungry and trying to fatten up for winter hibernation, Smith said. The very dry summer hasn't done the bears any favors, forcing them to lower elevations to find berries and other food, Smith said.
"This has been a drier year. So bears are in the berries maybe a little earlier than in some years. But certainly every fall, the chance of encounters goes up in the fall. You’ve got more people on the landscape and bears in that hyperphagic state where they are trying to put on calories for the winter," Smith said.
Another hunter had an encounter with a grizzly bear over the weekend, this time near Red Lodge. On Sunday, a hunter was bluff charged by a grizzly near Line Creek Trail on the way to line Lake, according to Custer Gallatin National Forest social media.
There were no injuries and no bear spray was used. Officials believe the bear was guarding a food cache and advised people to stay out of the area for the time being.
When it comes to safety, there are some things you can do to try and prevent an encounter with a bear. Smith said people should stay in groups and make noise to make wildlife aware of their presence. Anyone going into the woods for hiking, hunting, fishing or other activities should bring bear spray and know how to use it.
At a seminar in Billings this weekend, people can get hands-on experience with bear spray and learn all about bear safety from Chuck Bartlebaugh, who works with the Be Bear Aware Campaign.
The seminars will be held at the Billings Cabela's store at 4550 King Ave. E. on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., then on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"The bears are still out. The weather has been really good. We thought it would just be a really good time to remind people when they go out in the woods, how to be safe and how to prepare themselves in the event of an emergency," said Nicole Pugliano, general manager of Billings Cabela's.
At the seminar, Bartlebaugh will teach people what to do during a bear encounter and dispel some myths about how to properly use bear spray.
Hunting season is starting to open up across both Montana and Wyoming. With hunters trying to stay quiet to stalk their prey, there is added risk of a wildlife encounter, Pugliano said.
“It’s really important for the archers to be prepared as they just have their bow and arrow. It’s not as lethal as having your rifle out with you. But it’s still important, even as a rifle hunter, to have that bear spray with you as a deterrent, so you can hopefully deter the bear and it can live another day and so can you," Pugliano said.
For more information about how to stay safe in bear country, visit the Be Bear Aware Campaign's website by clicking here.