Bear encounters leave lasting impression

CODY — The huge grizzly that rushed out of the darkness overrunning Jon Sheets at the end of an elk hunt last October still haunts his days.

That’s because the Powell man is mostly stuck in the house with nothing to do, waiting for his body to heal as doctors probe various parts with heavy equipment.

“It’s seven surgeries now,” said Sheets, a guide for Boulder Basin outfitters who was attacked by a bear he estimated to weigh 750 pounds while field dressing a client’s kill at 9,000 feet in the mountains near Cody. “One more shoulder surgery to go.”

Armed with bear spray and a .44 magnum, Sheets could not save himself or Georgia hunter Tammy Copson from bloody maulings.

“I’m doing pretty good,” Sheets said more than nine months after the incident that required repair work on both shoulders, his head after a tooth became imbedded in it, his spine (three vertebrae fused) and left forearm. “I’m not 100 percent yet.”

The bear was after the elk carcass. Sheets and Copson were collateral damage, just in the way. In the midst of his struggle, Sheets, 47, stabbed the bear with his skinning knife, but otherwise the grizzly scored a clean knockout, with a clean getaway toting the elk.

The grizzly bear is one of the largest land mammals in North America, inspiring awe, admiration and fear. Tourists, hikers and hunters are spellbound at the sight of them inside Yellowstone National Park and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Sometimes people venture too close, sometimes they stumble into danger where conflict is inevitable. Sometimes bears kill and sometimes people are lucky to survive.

Sheets is one of the fortunate. Being someone who guides for elk and deer in the backcountry means he sees bears frequently.

“Virtually every trip,” he said. “Not close like this, but within a respectable range, probably within 100 yards.”

The first fatality in Wyoming from a bear attack was recorded in 1892.

Phillip Henry Vetter, 37, was found dead in his ransacked cabin near the Greybull River. Vetter wrote a story in his own blood, saying he had been mauled by a bear. His final words were, “I’m dying.” He is buried in Old Trail Town in Cody.

The most recent fatal bear attack in Yellowstone occurred in 2015 when a 63-year-old medical worker was hiking near Elephant Back Loop Trail.

There is an entire book, titled “Taken by Bear in Yellowstone,” documenting bear maulings inside the 2.2-million-acre national park.

One case involves Ned Frost Sr. of the prominent, multi-generational Cody family. On Aug. 14, 1916, Frost and companion Ed Jones were camping near the Lake Hotel.

A hunting guide by profession, Frost wrote up his recollections for “Outdoor Life” in 1918.

He said the night was cold and he placed a canvas pack sack over his sleeping bag. It was 12:30 a.m. when Frost awoke because of a screaming Jones, who had been grabbed by a grizzly.

Frost’s first line of defense was to throw a pillow at the bear. It was distraction enough for the bear to drop the other man.

“His fiery green balls of eyes caught sight of me as I sat up in bed waving my arms in a vain attempt to scare him,” Frost wrote.

The bear rushed him and began pulling at Frost’s sleeping layers. He wrote the bear’s “gleaming fangs and drooling jaws were within a foot-and-a-half of my eyes. The hot breath of the old devil had a very repugnant odor, which seemed almost to choke me, and I wondered just how it was going to feel when he would finally lose his hold on my legs and sink his great teeth into my exposed throat.”

The grizzly snatched up Frost in the sleeping bag, covering and all, shaking him along the way to the woods. But one great shake heaved Frost free of the bag as a noise-making Jones shouted and dumped over the stove, table and dishes.

That scared the bear away and the bloodied men were stitched up.

Bears versus humans is a mismatch. It can be like a 120-pound average Joe being steamrolled by a 6-foot-7, 380-pound NFL lineman with sprinter’s speed. Then throw in a carnivore’s teeth, sharp claws and an attitude that cannot be reasoned with.

Since bears cannot be cross-examined, they have been studied rather than interviewed about what makes them attack.

Typical provocations are sows protecting cubs, surprise trail encounters, a perceived threat to health or to a food stash. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a more common explanation than flat-out evil predation.

Cody’s Nic Patrick, 69, was mauled by a grizzly in 2013 on his property on the South Fork, victimized while walking in his hayfield.

The attack left Patrick with severe injuries to his face, back, a knee and a hand, the latter two wounds from clean bites.

Patrick had heard noises and thought his dogs were knocking heads with raccoons. As he investigated he ran across a sow with cubs that charged him from 30 yards. The bear was on him in two seconds.

“I did yell at her, ‘Hey!’” Patrick said recently. “She said, ‘Hey you!’ I just blundered into it. What else could she do?”

Patrick, who endured many surgeries, passed through stages of emotion, including outrage. But he parked his anger on a shelf long ago.

“There was a time I was angry,” he said, “more at myself for not being better prepared, not having bear spray. If I was angry at the bear, it was temporary.”

A man having his life turned upside-down through such a violent encounter might hold a grudge or hate bears, but not Patrick.

“No,” he said. “I love grizzly bears. I always have and I always will. They are the true symbol of wilderness. The grizzly is the poster child. They are a fit for the landscape. There are very few places like this. We have wild country that supports animals that were here 200 years ago.”

As the Interagency Grizzly Bear Management Study Team mulled the status of the bears in the Yellowstone area and sought to design a long-term protective plan for the species and as U.S. Fish and Wildlife moved to delist, arguments ensued on how many bears there are in the ecosystem.

From the lowest level of 136 bears in the early 1970s, the current working figure is 700, despite many in several government agencies holding the belief that the real number is as high as 1,200.

Bears are killing more cattle and other livestock. Bears are being seen in areas they haven’t been spotted in years. Game and Fish relocates more bears to avoid conflicts.

In 2015, officials moved 45 bears to new locations. In 2016, the number was 39. Game and Fish has boosted its educational efforts to make people “bear aware.” 

And in a wildly popular effort begun by Bearwise Community Coordinator Dusty Lasseter in 2015, in successive Septembers, the Cody office has distributed to hunters 100 free cans of bear spray paid for with grants.

The first session resulted in bear spray scarfed up in a stunningly swift 45 minutes. The next year people began lining up almost three hours early for the spray valued at $30-plus.

Lasseter, in his position since 2012, provides bear safety advice to between 3,000 and 4,000 people annually. He receives invitations from service groups, schools, Boy Scout troops.

People living in and near Cody understand outdoor recreation can lead to a bear confrontation.

“I think this community is especially interested in this stuff,” Lasseter said.

Lasseter has been involved in roughly 40 bear relocations and has learned the animals have different personalities. The goal with any capture and release is to send a bear off to a new life in a different neighborhood where it is less likely to get into trouble.

“Mostly, in reality they go back to being wild bears and you don’t see them again for years,” he said.

Recent studies indicate bear spray is more effective than bullets in defusing human-bear conflicts without resulting in death.

Dan White, 67, of Cody, said he has probably spent 1,000 nights in wilderness areas hiking and hunting, perhaps five times pulling out his bear spray in anticipation of danger, but has triggered it just once. 

About three years ago on an elk bow hunt he was walking through heavy tree cover.

“A bear came running in,” White said. “I heard a twig break and thought it was a bull (elk). I waved my arms, which usually works.”

White had fallen backwards to the ground and the bear loomed over him with open jaws a foot away. White set off his bear spray from a prone position.

“I saw the mouth turn orange,” he said.

The bear rebelled at the taste and ran.

Last October, guide Tev Kelley and companion elk hunter Scott Smith came close to becoming statistics when they were charged by a grizzly which didn’t blink when Kelley fired a warning shot from a .45 handgun. Undeterred at full run, the bear came at Kelley and so he shot it. It was only a wound, but the bullet stopped it.

“I’m a strong believer in bear spray, if that’s what you’re comfortable with,” Kelley said. “I carry a handgun and a rifle. If you have three things, you’re just confusing it. You have to have that instinctual Plan A.”

Kelley, 33, said he spends 50 days a year in “Cody country” and another 50 in the Bighorn Mountains, hunting, hiking and shed hunting.

A friend saw 17 bears on one day. On about half of his trips, Kelley sees a bear. As a teenager and in his early 20s, he hunted alone regularly but won’t now. Kelley said he has been charged by bears five times in the last three years.

“I’ve had several within 30 yards,” he said. “I’ve always been a big believer in letting them know you’re human.”

More bears are what frequent backcountry users like Colby Gines, 42, a Powell outfitter, report.

Gines said his elk and deer hunters near Eagle Creek see bears daily and are almost never removed from tracks.

“It doesn’t matter where you go,” he said. “We see bears all the way. They’re on your mind 24-7. It’s progressively gotten worse.”

As for field dressing, if an elk is left unattended for minutes, a bear may claim it.

“You can almost guarantee there’s going to be a bear on that carcass or that quarter,” Gines said. “I have had one come around and sit there at 150 yards and wait for me to leave.”

About 7,000 residents and non-residents applied for tags to hunt grizzlies this fall. Depending on their assigned locations, if the stories of bears being seen everywhere, the 22 winners should be able to find some.

To his regret, Sheets’ name was not drawn. He has not been able to hunt since his bear mauling last fall, or return to work as a mechanic, or even, following doctor’s orders, been able to lift more than 20 pounds. But he was committed to somehow making a bear hunt work if he got the chance.

“I want to harvest a bear,” Sheets said. “If it happened to be the same one that tried to eat me, fine.”


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