CODY — Authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding the fatal mauling by a grizzly bear Thursday of a Shoshone National Forest cabin owner. The incident occurred at a site where a bear had been captured and released earlier that day.
Erwin Frank Evert, 70, of Park Ridge, Ill., was reported missing to a member of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team who had been conducting research in the Kitty Creek drainage, about seven miles east of Yellowstone National Park.
Researchers had earlier trapped and released an adult male grizzly in the area, according to information released by Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.
A longtime friend and professional colleague said Evert was aware that researchers had been trying for several days to trap a bear in the area, and that friends and family members were unsure why he had hiked into the capture site despite knowing the risks.
“None of us understand it and apparently never will,” said retired ecologist Chuck Neal, author of “Grizzlies in the Mist.”
Neal said he often hiked the woods around Yellowstone with Evert, a botanist, sharing a common interest in researching the region’s plants and animals.
Neal, a survivor of several close encounters with grizzlies, said Evert had called him last week asking about a sign posted at Kitty Creek warning about bear-trapping activities, and that Evert was “absolutely aware” of the risks of hiking in the area.
Neal said bear researchers were returning from the capture site when they were told by Evert’s wife, Yolanda, that he was missing.
A study team member went back to the capture site and found Evert’s body. Wardens with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and a sheriff’s deputy responded at 8:30 p.m. to the remote location, about two miles from Highway 14-16-20.
Members of Park County Search and Rescue recovered Evert’s body around midnight, with assistance from Game and Fish workers, who provided armed security, Steward said in a written statement released Friday afternoon.
Steward said that Evert, who was not armed and was not carrying bear spray, apparently wandered into the capture site sometime after the bear had been released.
Neal said he did not know how researchers returning from the site failed to cross paths with Evert while he was hiking in, unless the botanist had left the trail at some point.
Bear not relocated
The bear had not been captured before Thursday, and had not been relocated from another area, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Researchers drew blood from the captured bear and fitted it with a radio collar before releasing it, Servheen said, but it has not yet been determined whether the previously captured bear was the same one that killed Evert.
Servheen said that wildlife officials will try to compare any DNA left by the attacking bear, most likely in its saliva, with blood drawn from the captured bear.
It is uncertain whether that difficult process of analysis will prove possible, he said.
Steward said that the U.S. Forest Service had issued a closure order for the Kitty Creek drainage and that federal wildlife and law enforcement agents are searching for the bear using electronic tracking equipment.
Servheen initially said Friday morning that wildlife officials would not try to trap the bear again. But he said later that efforts were being made to recapture it.
“If we get a chance to trap it, we will trap it,” he said.
He said that the investigation of the mauling is in its early stages, and that authorities will work to try and re-create what happened.
If it is determined that the bear trapped Thursday is the one that killed Evert, federal wildlife officials will decide the bear’s fate, he said.
“We’ll try to make a decision as to whether the actions of the bear were natural aggression,” Servheen said.
“We will try to make that decision based on what we know after we put all the facts together,” he said, adding that re-creating an attack without any witnesses can prove difficult.
Some cabin owners have said they were unaware of research work being done in the area, and questioned whether wildlife and land management agencies were communicating effectively with the public about such activities. The press is not routinely notified of study team field work.
Servheen said that interagency partners including the Wyoming Game and Fish and Shoshone National Forest personnel are aware of researchers’ work in the area, and that signs are posted in areas where bears are being captured.
He said he was unaware of what other public notifications, if any, were routinely made about bear capture efforts.
“The people doing this are highly trained professionals who follow very detailed protocols. One of the most important protocols is public safety,” he said.
“We want to make sure people don’t walk into these places, so they place signs lower down on the trail” warning people to avoid the area, he said.
Servheen said “it would be impossible to enter this area” without noticing warning signs.
Neal said Evert and his wife spent summers each year for the last three decades at their Kitty Creek cabin, and that they were close family friends.
“We walked many miles and spent many days together,” he said.
Evert was a research field botanist working for the Morton Arboretum in Chicago, and he also worked as a research associate at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming, Neal said.
Evert had just published “Vascular Plants of the Greater Yellowstone Area,” a book offering an exhaustive catalog of native plants, including a series of annotated maps, Neal said.
“It’s a magnificent book. It weighs about 5 pounds,” he said.
“It really was his life’s work, so it’s good, and I’m grateful that he got to see that published,” Neal said.
“He just turned 70 this spring, but he was still very active and very fit,” Neal said.
Neal described Evert as “a committed man who could focus like a laser beam on his goal.”
Persistent windy conditions around Cody over the last week made it a particularly dangerous time for hiking in grizzly country, Neal said.
Bears are unable to easily hear or smell people approaching under such blustery conditions, and are more likely to be surprised, eliciting a defensive response.
Although bear encounters around Yellowstone are not uncommon, including ones that result in serious injuries to people, fatal bear attacks are relatively rare.
Neal said the incident was the result of “incredible bad luck, and also bad judgment.”
“I’m thinking it had to be a close-range, surprise encounter,” he said.
Neal said bear spray or a gun “may not have done any good” in such an attack.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.