For 30 years Erwin Frank Evert had retreated with his wife to the mountains just east of Yellowstone National Park to a cabin that was a base-camp for his botanical field work. Roaming the mountains and meadows in and out of the park, the 70-year-old was well-accustomed to the wilds and what they held.
So well-versed was he with what grows in the area where northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana, and northeastern Idaho come together that the botanist had just recently published Vascular Plants of the Greater Yellowstone Area, a rich botanical guide to the region, according to friends.
But what his friends and acquaintances can’t explain is why the Illinois man headed up the wooded and brushy Kitty Creek drainage of the Washakie Wilderness to where a grizzly boar had been drugged by wildlife biologists so they could fit it with a radio collar to expand their knowledge of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly population.
Sometime late Thursday afternoon last week Mr. Evert met the bear head-on and was mauled to death. On Saturday -- ironically homing in on the signal from the collar that they had hoped would tell them much in the coming years about this 5- to 10-year-old bear -- wildlife agents killed the bear with a rifle shot fired from a hovering helicopter.
Now members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, which in the days leading up to the bear's capture had posted signs in the drainage warning hikers to stay out of the area because of their work collaring the grizzly, are trying to figure out why for the first time ever their work has resulted in a fatal mauling.
“In 33 years or so of trapping in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem we’ve never had this situation before,” an understandably somber Chuck Schwartz, team leader of the state-federal bear study team, said Monday.
Placing a radio collar on a grizzly typically is a fairly straightforward procedure. Bears are captured either in culvert traps or with leg-hold snares, and then biologists knock them out with Telezol, a drug with a sound track record in bear captures. Biologists can tell when the drug is wearing off because as the anesthesia lightens “spontaneous blinking will occur, bears will show chewing movements and paw movement,” notes an International Veterinary Information Service paper on anesthesia of bears. “They will start to lift their head, and may attempt to raise themselves with their forelimbs.”
According to Chris Servheen, the long-time Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the field biologists in this incident stayed with the 430-pound grizzly until it began to stir, then left the area. About the same time, Mr. Evert was heading up the drainage that climbs into the Absaroka Mountains just about 7 miles east of Yellowstone.
“I cannot remember another incident where a grizzly bear that’s been handled has killed a person, recently after being handled," Dr. Servheen said Monday. "And we have captured thousands of grizzly bears and black bears using these same techniques. This is the first time its ever happened.”
Mr. Evert's friends said he knew of the bear-trapping efforts. But they can't say why he was inclined to head into the area before an all-clear was given.
“None of us understand it and apparently never will,” Chuck Neal, a long-time friend and author of Grizzlies in the Mist told the Billings Gazette.
How the confrontation played out might never be known, as there were no witnesses. But Dr. Servheen, who received his doctorate in wildlife biology from the University of Montana in 1981, said the bear probably was not reacting to having been drugged.
“It doesn’t wake up really mad. We’ve heard repeated references to human emotions with bears here. They don’t hold a grudge, they’re not mad of anything like that,” he said Monday during a phone call from his Missoula, Montana, office. “They wake up. It’s a dissociative drug, so they’re completely unconscious during the time that they’re handled, and they wake up and they’re not in any kind of retribution state of mind or any such thing. That’s all human emotions.”
The grizzly also did not view the botanist as food, for after mauling the man -- removing what threat it might have perceived -- the bear left the area without consuming any part of him, said Dr. Servheen.
The biologist made the decision to have the grizzly killed because there were too many unknowns behind what spurred the mauling.
“We don’t have a policy that bears that kill people are immediately killed. We try to make a judgment as to the behavior of the bear, whether the bear was exhibiting natural aggression, such as self-defense, a female with cubs that’s approached (too closely) by a photographer,” said Dr. Servheen. “(If) we thought it was a natural mortality, or a natural aggression, we leave those bears alone.
“In this case we didn’t have that kind of information. There were no witnesses, so we don’t know whether this was a natural type of aggression,” he continued. “So just to err on the side of public safety, we removed the bear.”
In the coming weeks the IGBST will pull together a report on the incident by gleaning information from the scene of the mauling and from those who knew Mr. Evert.
“When we do these we try to pull together all the information available,” Dr. Servheen said. “Try to reconstruct it as much as possible, talk to anybody who may have talked to the individual so we know what he was doing, what he knew, and summarize what we think happened here. And if there any recommendations to come out of it we would make those as well.”
Louisa Willcox, who focuses on grizzly bear issues for the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Montana office, had known Mr. Evert for years, but couldn’t guess why he decided to hike up Kitty Creek, knowing there was a bear-collaring project under way. “He was very comfortable in the woods. He seemed to have known the risky nature of the situation with the captured bear,” she said Monday.
Ms. Willcox hoped the coming investigation would not only shed light on what transpired, but also, if needed, strengthen the protocols to be followed in future bear-collaring projects.
“I don’t know why there wouldn’t have been some people sort of on the scene making sure that the bear had cleared the premises, you know,” she said. “Because evidently he walked right onto it from all accounts that I’ve read.
“I think this is one of those situations where quarterbacking this from hindsight and not knowing the details, as I don’t, is a little difficult. But it’s definitely a situation that should be looked into, and where if the protocols weren’t followed some new ones might be helpful to avoid another person walking into, innocently,” continued Ms. Willcox. “I mean, this guy knew what he was walking into, and there were warning signs. But you can imagine the scenario where somebody innocently walked into something like that. It would behoove the agencies to make sure that the bear is up, awake, in good condition, and is gone.
“... “This is certainly a tragedy This guy had been around the woods for years and years, looking at plants and finding new subspecies every place. He was very, very woods-wise. It’s very sad.”