“Bears are typically afraid of humans and don’t act aggressively toward humans when they’re not feeling threatened,” Brad Hovinga, a regional wildlife supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said in an interview. “So this was a particularly aggressive encounter with these bears that is not normal for a family group, meaning a female grizzly bear with young. It’s not typical behavior.”
Authorities set foot snares at the site on Saturday, and on Sunday, a team of five officers found a yearling trapped in one and its mother nearby, the department said. She charged the officers, who shot her and tranquilized the young bear. Officers killed the yearling after locating evidence at the scene, including cub-size paw prints, that indicated it was also involved, Hovinga said. He said the department is “confident” the bears killed were the attackers, but it is conducting DNA and other forensic tests to confirm the conclusion.
The fatal attack came amid a temporary freeze on what would be Wyoming’s first grizzly hunting season in more than four decades. It was set to start Sept. 1 and would have taken place outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton in a region that includes the area where Uptain was killed. But the hunt was suspended two days before its start by a federal judge who is weighing lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s decision in 2017 to remove federal protections from Yellowstone-area grizzlies.
Several conservation, wildlife and tribal groups seeking to return the bears to the endangered species list argue that the population remains fragile, in part because of rising human-caused mortalities. As the grizzly population has grown and spread farther beyond the national parks, bears are being killed in greater numbers in car collisions, for preying on livestock and during run-ins with hunters.
Proponents of the hunt, including guides and outfitters, say there are too many grizzlies in the region and contend that hunting will make recreation safer for humans by removing “problem” bears and making grizzlies more afraid of people.
Earlier this month, a Minnesota man who was hiking in Wyoming was injured by a bear officials have said they believe was a grizzly. Fatal grizzly attacks are far more rare. The last one in Wyoming took place in 2015, inside Yellowstone.
Uptain’s client, Corey Chubon of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., told Orlando’s WKMG-TV that he pointed a pistol at one grizzly but that the animal knocked it from his hands and “swung me around in the air.” He said he then tossed the pistol to Uptain before mounting his horse and riding to a higher area with cellphone service.
“They thought there was some type of competition for their food, and they were coming to claim their food,” Chubon told the station.
A gun was found at the scene, Hovinga said, but there was no indication it had been used. A can of bear spray had been discharged, and the spray was found on the female bear, he said. Wildlife officials in the region recommend that hunters and hikers carry bear spray, which is similar to pepper spray and has been shown to be an effective deterrent.
“It may have done the job perfectly, and it just was after the initial attack, and the injuries from the very initial part of the attack could have been severe enough that the victim succumbed to the injuries,” Hovinga said. “We just don’t know.”
On social media, the attack heightened the debate over the grizzly hunt, with some holding it up as evidence of the human threat to the animals and others pointing to it as proof of an overpopulation of bears. Hovinga declined to comment.
“We are treating this incident as a unique event and totally and completely separate from any litigation or trying to propose a grizzly bear [hunting] season,” he said.
Uptain was a father of five and the owner of a small remodeling and restoration business, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide. In an interview with the paper this summer, he said he enjoyed spending time with his wife and children, as well as “serving on the board of elders at First Baptist Church, riding horses, hunting and fishing, guiding hunting clients, biking, playing chess and staying fit.”