BOZEMAN — Three hunters were injured in two separate grizzly bear attacks in the same area of southwestern Montana less than 12 hours apart, wildlife officials said.
Investigators were trying Tuesday to determine if the same bear was involved in the surprise encounters in the Gravelly Mountains, an area frequented by grizzlies about 70 miles southwest of Bozeman, said Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesman with Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Other hunters in the area were being asked to leave pending the outcome of the investigation. It would be unusual but not unprecedented for a single bear to be involved in back-to-back attacks.
The first attack occurred Monday about 7:30 a.m. when two elk hunters were charged by a bear west of Black Butte, the highest peak in the Gravelly range.
The grizzly injured both men before they were able to drive it away. They later sought out medical treatment on their own after traveling to the small town of Ennis, Jacobsen said.
At 6:30 p.m. and less than a mile away from the first attack, two hunters encountered a grizzly and one was injured, Jacobsen said. In that case, too, the hunters were able to drive away the animal and get the injured man to help. He was treated in Sheridan and later in Butte.
The extent of the hunters' injuries was unknown. All were from out of state, Jacobsen said.
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Whether any action will be taken against the bear or bears involved will depend on circumstances that are still under investigation.
Wildlife authorities sometimes capture and kill bears that have become habituated to people, and more rarely when an animal is believed to have intentionally sought out its victims.
Both hunting parties were carrying bear spray - a Mace-like canister that is used to deter bears - but Jacobsen did not know if they had used it. He said the outcome could have been worse if the hunters had been traveling alone, which would have made it hard to fight off the attacks and to get to help.
"That's something we really try to emphasize: Hunting with a partner," he said. "This is a notorious area for grizzly bear activity so it was certainly not an isolated bear. There are other grizzly bears in this area."
The grizzly population in and around Yellowstone National Park, which includes the Gravelly range, has increased from an estimated 136 bears when they were granted federal protection in the mid-1970s to about 700 today.
Bears now come into frequent conflicts with humans, through attacks on domestic livestock and people who encounter bears unexpectedly in the forest. The possibility for such encounters is particularly high in the fall, when hunters, looking for deer, elk, and birds, share the landscape with grizzlies searching for food before winter sets in.
Last year, a grizzly sow and cub fatally mauled a hunting guide in northwestern Wyoming.