Yellowstone Bear Attack Investigation Halts Trapping, Starts Disagreements


Grizzly in Yellowstone

A week after a grizzly bear attack and killed teacher Erwin Frank Evert just east of Yellowstone National Park, everyone is looking for something that someone did wrong. Evert was mauled by a big bear that had been trapped, drugged and released by researchers hours–or even minutes–earlier. Now Evert’s family and friends, bear experts and researchers are debating who–if anyone–cut corners on safety. The main issues are warning signs (whether they were adequate and if Evert ignored them) and whether researchers left a dangerous situation on the ground–either by leaving too early or left anything behind–like bait–that the bear would’ve defended. Research is halted while the incident is investigated.

Initially researchers questioned why Evert had blown past bear warning signs. Now family and bear expert and Evert’s friend Chuck Neal say he wasn’t out looking for trouble.

“Erv never would’ve walked up on a bear that he saw. This was an accidental encounter at close range,” Neal says. “He wasn’t a moron. He was a brilliant man.”

His widow and daughter have told their hometown papers,  the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, that they are furious with researchers for not being clear about the dangers in the Kitty Creek drainage area east of the park, two miles from the family’s longtime cabin. “He had no idea they were going to be baiting, trapping and collaring bears in our backyard,” his daughter, Mara Evert Domingue of Ventress, La., who spoke to him that morning,

Neal earlier told the Billings Gazette that Evert was “absolutely aware” of bear danger in the area. He said Evert called him a week earlier asking about signs posted about a dangerous bear in the area. Neal, author of Grizzlies in the Mist, says he and Evert discussed the signs’ peculiar message that a specific bear seemed to be confined to a precise area. “He kind of joked about it,” Neal told “He said they can’t have a dangerous bear tied to a tree. I said it was research that involved some kind of bait. Until the signs come down, just stay away.”

Neal now says he isn’t sure whether signs were still up when Evert, 70, went off into the woods around 1 p.m. on June 17–almost exactly the time the bear was released. The warning they discussed were distinct from the usual bear activity signs that seem to flutter everywhere in Yellowstone. The family has described them as mere “yellow ribbon.” Neal also says that Evert never would have sought out the bear or bear trapping area just out of curiosity. Neal thinks the extraordinary winds blowing that day prevented the bear from hearing or smelling the teacher and botanist until he was too close. He also raises questions about whether researchers stuck around until the bear was fully awake or just waking up. Different accounts appeared in various media interviews.

“I think there will be shown a few corners that were cut by research trappers,” Neal said. “The bottom line is if he just stayed out, he would be okay.”

On top of anything anyone did wrong is the incredible coincidence that Evert set off into the woods right about the time the bear was waking up and released. The  Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has been studying grizzlies in Yellowstone since 1973 and this bear was number 646, says Chuck Schwartz, team leader. No previous bears attacked hikers like this just after release. The agency is more interested in tracking female bears to study reproduction. They aim to collar 25 sows a year, he says, but will also collar males like this one, a 430-pound male between five and 10 years old.

Schwartz says the traps are baited with deer or elk roadkill–never the human food that bear hunters often use. They check traps at least once a day, often more, with some equipped with a transmitter. Bears caught in a leg snare like this one are darted with the drug telezol–(those in culvert traps are jabbed). Schwartz says the researchers “clean up any meat” or blood used as bait, though an occassional “piece of bone [might be] not picked up.” If the area was cleaned, it would remove the possibility that the bear was defending food.

The agency’s grizzly bear study–the longest running in the world–has helped raise the Yellowstone area bear population from a low of about 200 in the 70s, when the garbage food supply was abruptly cut off, to about 600 today. The group has led to regulations on food storage and the closing of some areas to people at certain times of year to reduce bear conflict. Neal says he thinks some collaring will always be necessary, but thinks the agency may do more than that.

Bear researchers say the drug telezol normally doesn’t produce aggression when bears wake up. “The bear’s not docile after he wakes up,” Neal says. “He’s groggy.” Grizzly bears may feel the effects for a full week, noticeably foraging in a tighter range around the release site, Neal says. Yet, unlike with other animals, researchers often vacate when the animals just starts waking.

Bear biologist Stephen Stringham, a grizzly bear biologist in Alaska and author of When Bears Whisper, Do You Listen?, says “we beat a hasty retreat for two reasons.  First, this is less stressful for the bear to wake up without any people around.  Second, there is a small chance it will become aggressive.”

With thousands of bears tranquilized and revived without incident, he says, “IF there is an increase in risk, it is too small to be measured statistically.”

“We often stay with a tranquilized bear until it begins getting up, so that it will be protected against any other animal that might happen by (tranq’d bears have occasionally been attacked by other bears), and to minimize likelihood that some human will happen by and end up too close to the bear — which, but for the tranq, might have fled,” he says.

Neal says he will always wonder why his friend wandered into the area and what happened there. “I keep coming back on why on earth did he go there?” Neal says. “I think he literally walked into the bear and there was no time to do anything.”

Read previous story on the attack

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