Bear experts will spend a month compiling information to try to determine the sequence of events and possible causes that led to the fatal mauling of a Michigan man at Soda Butte Campground early Wednesday, but they all agree on one thing already — the unusual nature of the event.
“These types of incidents, where we appear to have an unnaturally aggressive bear, are very, very unusual,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula. “We can’t explain it at this point. As we reconstruct it, maybe we’ll understand better.”
Kevin Ronald Kammer, 48, was killed in the attack, his body partially consumed. Two other campers in the campground were injured in separate attacks the same morning beginning at around 1:30. Officials said no food appeared to have been left out to attract the bears.
After the attacks, wildlife officials set traps in the campground. A sow grizzly was captured at 6 p.m. Wednesday in a culvert trap set up where Kammer was killed. Two of her three cubs were trapped overnight. The other is still in the area but was unwilling to enter a trap.
“We feel fortunate that the bear did come back,” Servheen said. “In a situation where you have a predatory bear, they will often come back to the kill site.”
In the past 30 years, 12 people have been killed by bears in Montana and Wyoming. On the Gallatin National Forest, where Soda Butte Campground is located, the last bear-caused fatality was in June 1983, when a camper was dragged from his tent and killed at Rainbow Point Campground near Hebgen Lake. Seven of the 12 fatal attacks occurred in Glacier National Park, while two occurred in Yellowstone. Both parks are prime grizzly bear habitat. An estimated 600 grizzly bears and numerous black bears live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem alone.
“When you figure that about 40,000 people are killed by cars every year and about 4,000 wives are killed by their husbands, one person killed by a bear every other year seems pretty insignificant, except to the victim’s family,” said Chuck Jonkel, a veteran bear researcher, in Missoula. “There are a lot worse problems.”
Jonkel said media coverage of bear attacks sensationalize them and indirectly harm the bears.
“We can help them by following the rules,” he said, such as keeping clean campsites, making noise while hiking and carrying pepper spray for protection.
Bear sightings and encounters are common in the Cooke City area, which is about a mile east of Soda Butte Campground and surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. Photographer Dan Hartman, who lives just west of Cooke City, took photographs of a male grizzly killing a calf moose in his front yard, right next to Highway 212. Bears are just part of living in the wild country miles from the nearest city, said his wife, Cindy, who added that the fatal mauling does not make her any more worried or cautious.
Bears that do have run-ins with humans are sometimes trapped, tagged and released in remote areas. But the sow captured by wildlife officials is not one that has been caught before, since it has no ear tag or tattoo.
“We know nothing about her,” said Chuck Schwartz, of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study team in Bozeman.
If the sow’s DNA matches samples taken from the attack sites, she will be killed. The fate of her cubs is uncertain. If the sow is killed, an autopsy will be performed to see if she had any physical ailments that may have contributed to the attacks. She appeared healthy, weighing an estimated 300 to 400 pounds.
Having cubs and raising them is a strain for mother bears, Jonkel said, often pushing them nearly to starvation. The more cubs she has, the more work it is to provide food and care. The average litter for a female grizzly is 2.2 cubs. Three is unusual, and four is extremely unusual, Jonkel said.
Schwartz also said it is rare for bears to enter campgrounds unless they’ve been there before and found food. It’s also unusual to have a female bear attack that is unprovoked. Over the past 30 years, most of the fatal maulings in Montana and Wyoming involving female bears were triggered by hikers coming up on the sow and cubs and the sow instinctively protecting her young.
“When humans are injured it’s almost always a female with cubs that are young of the year, to protect the young,” Schwartz said.
Bad bear year
Bear reports have been flooding into the Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional office in Missoula this year because of a cold spring that has delayed fruit and berry growth by about two weeks, said Jamie Jonkel, bear management specialist. Consequently, bears are prowling the lowlands where people live and play to find food.
But Schwartz said the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has benefited from a wet spring that provided reasonable amounts of green growth for bears to feed on. So why would the sow attack campers?
“It’s going to take some time to figure this out,” Servheen said.
But he added it’s very unlikely the cubs were involved in the attacks.
“In family groups like that, she’s the leader,” he said.
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.