(photos/maps pulled from the discussed report)
Many of you will have at least heard of the death of hunting guide Mark Uptain in a Grizzly Bear attack this past September, in the Teton Wilderness not far south of Yellowstone. Wyoming Game and Fish recently completed their report on the fatality (full text here), and for folk who hike, backpack, and especially hunt in Grizzly country it is worth reading in full.
A few things stand out, some obvious, others less so. The center of discussion has been on the failure of the guide and client pair to effectively use any of their available weapons. Both men had bear spray, while the guide had a 10mm pistol and the client a crossbow. Only Uptain’s bear spray was immediately accessible, and while it was used against one of the bears, in the judgment of the WGF personnel the use was too late to prevent Uptain’s death: “Evidence suggests that after the attack was stopped by the bear spray, Uptain traveled under his own power about 50 yards uphill from the attack site to where he succumbed from his injuries.” (p. 9) Perhaps Uptain would have sustained less than fatal injuries had his client sprayed both him and the sow quickly, or been able to shoot the sow. This incident underlies just how fast a Grizzly attack is likely to happen in his and other situations, and how even accessible weapons may have situational shortcomings.
Time and location are also relevant factors in promulgating the attack, though by no means a definitive ones. Corey Cubon, the client, stated that he had shot the elk at some point the afternoon/evening before, and after failing to find it he and Uptain had ridden back to the trailhead (and the lodge in which he was staying), and returned the following day, leaving the TH at 0800 and finding the elk around 1300. He called 911 at 1634, reporting later that they were almost finished butchering at the time of the attack.
Based on the above photo the elk died in a spot which would have made me rather nervous. The visibility looks poor, while the location on a small hill at general high altitude would make for increased scent transport. The general environment is stereotypical Grizz habitat, and if barstool biology is held at face value, bears in that area are drawn to hunting terrain in the fall due to the year-over-year availability of carrion. All of this makes it difficult to not conclude that leaving a carcass on the ground for possibly 20 hours or more is a less than safe practice. Archery hunting lends itself to more protracted blood trailing, which can increase both retrieval time and the scent footprint. The assumption, in this case and surely many others, that the hunters will be returning to the road every night increases both of these yet again. This is not to say that had Uptain and Cubon bivvied in the field and found the elk at 0700 things might have gone differently, simply that increased time between a shot fired and starting the pack out necessarily increases the possibility of a bear encounter, even if that increase can never be coherently quantified.
The various accounts of Uptain’s condition appended to the main report make for a sobering read. Uptain died from massive blood loss, primarily due to bites to the upper legs. He did not suffer fatal head trauma, but his head was nonetheless bitten such that “The blood was so thick on his face that it was like the victim was wearing a black mask.” (p. 28) Not that anyone needs more concrete reason to avoid a bear attack…
It is also worth noting that any non-resident of Wyoming may purchase (or attempt to via lottery) an elk tag, but could not legally hunt where Mr. Uptain died without either hiring a guide or having a resident friend along as a guide/sponsor. While I don’t think it is reasonable to criticism Mr. Cubon for his conduct during the attack, it would not be reasonable to not discuss how a cooler and/or more experienced hand might have saved Mr. Uptain’s life. The state of Wyoming officially prohibits non-residents from hunting in federal Wilderness due to safety concerns, already an absurd position given that anyone may backpack, ski, boat, birdwatch, or hunt small game in the same areas without a guide or chaperone. The real reason for this prohibition is of course to protect the territory of guiding services, like the one which employed Mr. Uptain, and the partial monopoly they enjoy on some of the most productive and sublime elk terrain in North America. This incident seems decent evidence that encouraging the less competent to hire their way into a potentially dangerous situations is necessarily making their guides, and likely the clients as well, less safe.