Bear experts will spend a month compiling information to try and figure out the sequence of events and possible causes that led to the fatal mauling of a Michigan man at a campground just outside Cooke City, Mont., near Yellowstone National Park 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 and partially consumed at Soda Butte Campground. Two other campers at different sites were injured in separate attacks the same morning beginning at around 1:30. Officials have said no food appears 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. the same day in a culvert trap set up where Kammer was killed. Two of her three cubs were trapped overnight while the other was captured Friday.
“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.”
To underscore how rare the fatal mauling is, in the last 30 years 12 people have been killed by bears in Montana and Wyoming. And 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 attacks occurred in Glacier National Park, while two occurred in Yellowstone, both prime grizzly bear habitats. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem alone there are an estimated 600 grizzly bears in addition to numerous black bears.
“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 sensationalizes them and indirectly harms 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.
Birthing and raising cubs is a strain for mother bears, Jonkel said, often pushing them to near-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 cubs is extremely unusual, Jonkel said.
Schwartz said it is also 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 in to Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ regional office in Missoula this year thanks to a cold spring that has retarded fruit and berry growth by about two weeks, said Jamie Jonkel, bear management specialist. Consequently, bears are prowling the lowlands where humans 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 humans?
“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.