Two hunters who had a deadly encounter with a young male grizzly bear Friday were certain it was a black bear when they shot it, said a third member of their hunting party.
The bear killed Steve Stevenson, 39, after it was shot by Ty Bell, 20. Bell is originally from Bonners Ferry but recently moved to Winnemucca, Nev.
Ty Bell could not be reached for comment, but his father, Bill Bell, who was hunting nearby, said there was no way his son could have known it was a federally protected grizzly, not a black bear, despite his knowledge about the two species’ distinguishing characteristics.
“The thing that people don’t understand is that not all grizzlies have a certain color,” he said. “Not all grizzlies, especially young grizzlies, have the pronounced features of the hump or the dished face. A lot of the younger bears, you can’t tell that they are grizzlies.”
John Fraley, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Associated Press that differentiating between grizzlies and black bears can be difficult – hunters in Montana are required to take an identification course, which says color and size are unreliable indicators of specie type – but that the two species behave differently.
“Anytime you have a wounded animal it can be dangerous,” Fraley told the AP. “But usually, grizzlies are considered more aggressive than black bears.”
Montana’s bear identity training course says grizzly populations are on the rise.
“Montana’s grizzly bear populations continue to expand,” the training slideshow reads. “More grizzly bears in more places means that you’re more likely than ever to have an encounter – especially in the western half of Montana – if you spend any time outdoors.”
The attack occurred in a remote, mountainous, heavily-wooded area in the Buckhorn Mountain area along the northern Montana/Idaho state line about 10 a.m. Friday. Authorities with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, which responded to the attack, said GPS coordinates put the attack right on the border.
Bill Bell said his son and Stevenson studied the 400-pound bear for several minutes from about 60 yards away before mistaking it for a black bear.
“As far as my boy figured, there was nothing there that could tell him that it was a grizzly,” he said. “Up until the time that my boy pulled the bear off my hunting partner, he believed it to be a black bear, until he (saw) its claws. Up until that point, he was totally convinced it was a black bear.”
Ty Bell shot and wounded the bear, which then walked off into the brush, Bill Bell said. The two waited for 45 minutes for the bear to die then tracked it into the brush. The bear then got up and started running at Ty Bell, he said.
“Before they could really take control of the situation, both of them fired at the bear, trying to stop him or slow him down,” he said. “I believe right after they shot, Steve hollered at the bear and that’s when the bear focused his attention on Steve. I think partially it was to save my son. Steve could see what was about to happen to my boy.
“That bear … carried Steve down the hill for about 30 yards through the brush. Ty, when he ran up and this bear was on top of Steve, he shot the bear three or four times and killed him and had to roll the bear off of Steve only to find out he couldn’t resuscitate Steve or bring him back to life.”
Ty Bell called for help from his cellphone and waited at the scene until authorities arrived, Brent Faulkner of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. Stevenson’s body was removed by helicopter and taken to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula for an autopsy. The bear’s body was also removed by helicopter; it was taken to a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks laboratory in Bozeman for necropsy.
“There are multiple reports of additional grizzly bears in the area,” Faulkner said in the news release. “Hunters are advised to use caution.”
Stevenson’s family told the AP he was an active outdoorsman who had made previous hunting trips to the area. Stevenson was married and had two daughters, ages 14 and 10.
“He was a great friend to everyone, great fun,” his mother, Janet Price, told the AP. “A wonderful man.”
Bill Bell said he and his son are also avid hunters and that he has hunted and worked for decades as a professional guide in the area in which Stevenson was killed.
“I have guided and hunted in that area for the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s something we’ve done for all of our life, in that same area. My boy was raised into that.”
Bill Bell said backlash from commenters on online news sites is adding to the families’ pain.
“They weren’t standing in either my boy’s shoes or Steve’s shoes when this happened,” he said. “Until you’re standing in those same shoes, you shouldn’t cast a judgment. People have misread this whole story.”
The U.S. Forest Service, David Thompson Search and Rescue and multiple Idaho agencies also responded. The death is at least the third fatal grizzly encounter in the U.S. since July. Grizzly bears are listed as threatened species and killing one in the lower 48 states is a federal offense that can carry civil and criminal penalties of up to $50,000 and a year in jail. It is not known if Ty Bell will face any charges.