"Somebody gets nailed in grizzly country every year. Almost always, they survive these attacks by animals that can take down a bull elk or an Angus steer, though the injuries can be gruesome. This more than anything refutes the myth that grizzlies are man hunters that lust for human flesh. If they wanted to kill us, they would do it in short order. But their power, their capacity for ferocity, is also what makes them so compelling."
- Scott McMillion, "Mark of the Grizzly"
It's easier to get hit by lightning than to be attacked by a grizzly bear.
So Livingston author Scott McMillion practically caught lightning in a bottle when he decided to update his book, "Mark of the Grizzly," just before 2010 became Annus horribilis for Ursus arctos horribilis.
"I had already arranged with the publisher to do the revision before the fatals in Yellowstone had happened," McMillion said. "And there have been a lot of incidents since. The original version was 13 years old and getting a little dated. There's been a lot of new science, with the DNA and the hair snags. And there's a lot more bears."
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McMillion wrote the original book in 1998 to both peel back some of the myths surrounding grizzly bear attacks and pile up the lessons learned from actual encounters. The senior editor of Montana Quarterly and former Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporter researched incidents going back to 1977.
"I want people to be safe out there," he said. "I think posting a dry list of what to do and don't do at the trailhead isn't that effective. A narrative is a better lesson for how to act around bears."
The book's chapters recounted hunting mishaps, photographers who got too close and in-your-face encounters with bear spray. It also detailed the responses that may have saved a life or turned a bluff charge into a full-on smackdown. Each chapter had interviews with victims and rescuers, along with insights into bear behavior.
But between then and now, the human side of the encounters has added several new twists. There are the folks McMillion calls "bear whisperers" like Timothy Treadwell, whose delusions about being able to live with Alaskan brown bears got him and his girlfriend killed, along with at least two of the bears he thought he was protecting. The growing popularity of long-distance backcountry races and mountain biking have added new ways to surprise a bear into a confrontation.
And then there were the two fatal maulings just outside Yellowstone National Park last year that didn't fit easily into the history of bear attacks. McMillion recounts them both in the chapters "Long day at Kitty Creek" and "A rare and ghastly night."
"Those two were covered in blogs, papers and TV stations all over the world," McMillion said. Nevertheless, the amount of misinformation and misdirected public attention made them ripe for a deeper look.
In the Kitty Creek incident, bear researchers had trapped and tranquilized a large boar, and then left it to recover from the drugs while they inspected a second trapped sow. Longtime cabin owner Erwin Evert came up the trail a few hours later, and for unknown reasons, went to explore the trap site. The still-groggy boar killed him.
The man's widow is now suing the grizzly bear researchers.
The second chapter investigates the death of Kevin Kammer and mauling of two more people at the Soda Butte campground near Cooke City. An undernourished sow with three cubs fulfilled every bear-paranoid's worst nightmare, ripping into three separate tents at night and eating the victim she killed in the third one.
McMillion brings together not only the most complete accounts of what happened in both cases, he also follows the ripples into the worlds of bear research and public opinion. The Kitty Creek incident exposed the scientific debate over the value of expensive-but-risky bear trapping compared to new techniques using hair and scat samples to build a picture of grizzly populations.
The public reaction to the killing of both suspect bears in those incidents was also fascinating, McMillion said. In 2010, humans killed at least 50 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone Park, mostly by accident or for getting into livestock or other human food sources.
That didn't stop people from blaming the human victims, the government researchers and even the bears, he reported. In the Soda Butte incident, one woman "offered to lock herself in a room with the bear to prove ‘it won't purposefully kill me.' " Another wrote "God makes it clear in scripture that deaths of people and livestock at the hands of savage beasts is a sign that the land is under a curse."
"They're certainly an iconic animal and that attracts worshippers," McMillion said of the bear advocates and adversaries who conflate their imaginations with the real world of grizzly bears. But he's almost more concerned about the people who willfully ignore the bears' presence: endurance athletes who've taken to the backcountry.
"Bowhunters break all the rules for safe travel in bear country, but at least they're armed," McMillion said. "They're moving slowly, looking around. But bicyclists and trail runners - they're moving fast, breathing hard, and they can't hear as well. I just don't think it's a good idea in bear country, especially these overnight trail races. It's kind of a prescription for trouble."
Nevertheless, with grizzly populations reaching record highs in both the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, McMillion said he's more optimistic about the bears' long-term survival chances than he was when he wrote the first edition of "Mark of the Grizzly."
"When I was dickering with the publisher, I was reluctant to demonize grizzly bears," he said. "I wanted to explain them, and I wanted a strong conservation message. It's good for us to be reminded we're not always on top of the food chain."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.