Terrace Mtn hunting fatality report and analysis

(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.

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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.



13 responses to “Terrace Mtn hunting fatality report and analysis”

  1. I would agree with everything but the last sentence. While an appropriate and effective response to sudden stressful and dangerous situations can be trained for, and is successfully trained for by people in lines of work that need it, by and large there is not guarantee that people with ample outdoors experience would react appropriately in those circumstances, unless trained.

    Last year Rinella and his crew were attacked by a bear on Afognak island, and the only reason why nobody got hurt was dumb luck: Janis Putelis had his walking sticks at hand and he used them to hit the bear in the face — by his own admission he did not in any way plan this reaction and he was utterly amazed it was enough to scare off the bear. TV fame or not, I’d argue quite a few of the people in that party can be described as ‘experienced’, yet they all made many multiple mistakes and only dumb luck saved them.

    I have no doubt that people who hunt (and/or guide) in bear country can get trained to use bear spray or a pistol at the right time, but in the specific instance we have no evidence that *either* party was thus trained (in fact the guide had a pistol but not on himself, something which a trained individual would not do). Please note I am not defending guiding but unless at least a subset of hunters can be shown to be trained to deal effectively with a sudden bear attack, nobody is actually more competent in facing this danger.

    1. Agreed on all counts. While evidence suggests that most people new to bear country and on their own don’t prep the things which matter (ex. visualizing response during a variety of attack scenarios), being on one’s own at least hopefully makes that more likely.

      The Meat Eater incident is worth extended attention (here: http://www.themeateater.com/listen/meateater/ep-086-the-meat-tree-part-1). They admit to plenty of mistakes, but in the end I was left wondering about how leaving meat in the field for an extended period of time just plain equals more risk, no matter what else you do. I was super paranoid during the bison packout, having listened to those podcasts a month or so earlier.

  2. collinswannabesite Avatar

    You hunt and hike in Grizzly territory Dave. Do you use a bear canister or hang your food with simply backpacking? I know you talked a bit about how you handled the bison meat in that post.

    1. I hang. I’ve used an Ursack (Glacier NP has a few) a few times on alpine trips where hanging was more difficult, and a bear can a few times in California and Utah. While I think Skurka’s recent series dismissing hanging for the general public is largely accurate, I don’t think hanging is nearly as difficult as he makes it out to be, at least in the pine/spruce forests around here.

      1. collinswannabesite Avatar

        Thank you.

  3. Ouch I walked through that area several times (once late in the evening which wasn’t smart). Tons of bear sign every time and they liked to follow the trails.

    My theory is there is no point in having a weapon unless its always ready. Bear spray is light enough to have on your hip pretty much all day long.

    On wilderness trips with middle school kids our system was to give every participant a bear spray can with instructions to always wear it. If there had been an attack hopefully someone would react appropriately.
    Our closest call was on a hiking trip. A group behind us bumped a bear which then popped out of the alders right beside an 8 year old boy who was sitting there quietly looking at plants. Fortunately the little guy reacted well and didn’t startle the bear. The bear walked off and all was well. Meanwhile all the other kids had grabbed bear spray which made me feel good about theit odds in future bear encounters.

    After that experience I’m pretty sure I will pack a 12 guage shotgun when I take kids out again. A group of kids introduces many more variables than a couple of adults. As much as we talk about keeping the group close etc there is a chance that a kid will get in trouble with a bear 50 yards away where I can’t reach with spray or a handgun. On personal trips its overkill but the calculation is different when I’m responsible for other people’s kids.

    1. I think about this a lot, especially in light of this summer, when both our kiddos will be highly mobile. Hard to think anything short of a long arm is the only way to go.

      1. Yeah worth thinking about with little ones. My boss had a a scary bear encounter and is convinced it was the squeals of two 7 year old girls playing that drew the bear in. He thinks it sounded like a distress call to the bear.

        For the record I’m not overly concerned with bears. But kids add more opportunities for things to go wrong.

  4. Chilling to be sure.

    I wonder if in the case of a potential carcass being left out all night, if best practices would dictate another guide (or possibly a hunter) to go along. Two processing meat, one simply a lookout (w/ bear spray and a firearm).

    If I was an outfitter in grizzly country, I would certainly implement that policy for my guides next hunting season.

    It can be tough enough to process a freshly killed elk when grizzlies are honing in on rifle shots, leave one overnight and the odds start going down further. I got to work the A-B Wilderness early season a couple of times. Each time we issued a couple of replacement licenses to hunters who were run off their elk by grizzlies.

    I know at least one outfitter in that area that has a policy that an elk has to be shot before noon, if none is found, they head back to camp. Makes you think a little when an outfitter has adopted such a restrictive policy voluntarily.

    1. hmmm- I’ll reply to my own response, quoting from the article

      “But once Uptain and Chubon eyed the animal and were field dressing, more manpower or vigilance could have made a major difference, he said.

      “Having another person there who was more experienced and at the ready to help them get that elk out of there would have changed the outcome dramatically,” Primm said.”

      1. Makes me feel fortunate to have had the crew and the coordinator we did for Absaroka. Other than me mistaking the bison hide for a bear, I felt pretty comfortable bear wise. Others did the thinking so I didn’t have to.

        1. Still amazed we saw no bear sign on that trip. If I could do it over I’d bring a bear fence for sure.

  5. Thx for this Post.
    It was interesting to read your quite careful wording and circumspect analysis of this terrible Event. I am by age, experience and temperament not nearly as measured as you.
    This entire situation is a terrible tragedy, in the classic sense of serious personal failings leading to not only the guides unnecessary death but also two less Grizz in that area. Who beamons the loss of the bears? Humans always “win”, enjoy Grizz and predator wildness while you can. It will end.
    Knowing this area and the very close proximity to the Meadows etc., knowing a very experienced seasonal ranger there at Blackrock and his District boss and realizing that by nature these Official Reports are very political, I look forward to hearing the more realistic and thorough report in May at the Taylor Hilgard cabin from my friend.
    That guide leaves five kids and a wife, he surely needed desperately that Trip’s Income and the tip from that Floridian with a crossbow and no familiarity with a Glock.
    Sorry, there is no “training “ and “experience”? That could overcome this tragedy.
    This was a terrible mess.



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