LIVINGSTON — Justin Souza says he didn't even know the big beast was there — that is, not until he saw a cloud of warm breath rising from a seemingly anonymous mound of earth.
The 29-year-old Livingston man was on an elk hunt early on Nov. 17 when the moment many Montana hunters dread became reality.
Souza said he was following a game trail in the mountains surrounding Emigrant when he came upon a sleeping grizzly bear nestled in the dirt in the middle of the trail, all but concealed by foggy conditions and the animal's muddy brown fur.
In the dim morning light, Souza had strayed within 10 yards of the sleeping giant. The hunter's presence did not go undetected, however.
The grizzly stirred, lifting its head a little to get a glimpse of who had disturbed its slumber. Then, the bear put its head back down.
Meanwhile, Souza backpedaled, putting distance and a tree between him and the grizzly. He flipped the safety off his rifle, just in case. The bear jumped up, but began lumbering away from the hunter, up the hillside. Souza relaxed. Figuring this was the final phase of the encounter, he took out his phone to capture a video clip of the retreating grizzly.
But the bruin abruptly spun around, and barreled back down the hill, making a beeline toward the hunter.
"He was maybe — maybe — 30 yards away. But he was at a dead run," said Souza.
In the video, the bear can be seen charging at Souza for scarcely a second before Souza drops his phone to raise his .300 Winchester magnum rifle.
The phone, its camera facing down on the ground, continued to record as Souza took a knee and aimed.
"In the back of my head, I can still hear my dad's voice: 'Take your time, but hurry up,'" he said.
The tense couple seconds of silence that follow in the recording are shattered by a blast from the Winchester. Followed by another, and another and another. Souza said the bear huffed violently and lunged, blood pouring from its mouth in its final moments, still heaving as its inertia brought it sliding down the hill toward him until after the fourth and final shot.
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Souza was hunting with friends Darryl Windorski and his adult son Eric Windorski, of the Glastonbury neighborhood, but the Windorskis were canvassing other parts of the hillside for elk at the time and did not witness Souza's encounter with the bear. Both came running when they heard the shots.
"When I came to Justin, I was almost in tears," said the senior Windorski when he saw what had happened. "I'm just glad my friend Justin is alive."
Souza, a guide for Montana Elk and Trout, promptly reported the incident to the authorities. On Friday Nov. 18, Special Agent Shawn Conrad of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana, Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 3 bear specialist Jeremiah Smith visited the site to investigate with Souza and Darryl Windorski leading the way. The party was also accompanied by a reporter from The Livingston Enterprise (bit.ly/2fx51Mg) and Abram Boise, another Glastonbury landowner and friend to Souza.
The initial investigation revealed the bear was a boar, or male grizzly. The officials took measurements and photos of the bear and the surrounding scene before cutting off and packing out all four of the bear's paws and head. Montana FWP Region 3 spokeswoman Andrea Jones said the body parts are "collected biological materials that help identify the bear," adding that any and all grizzly mortalities are meticulously tracked.
The remainder of the fatty, pungent carcass will be left to decay.
The investigating officials ordered all bystanders to remain a significant distance from the scene as they collected evidence.
Smith said the bear's teeth will be used to determine its age, adding he could not provide an accurate estimate on the weight of the bear, due to its postmortem bloating.
Souza said he left the shells from his fired rounds where they fell and retraced his footsteps out of the area, conscious not to disturb the scene. Conrad questioned both Souza and Windorski and watched Souza's smartphone video.
When reached by phone Monday morning, Conrad said the investigation is ongoing. He said his report will be filed with the U.S. Attorney's Office, which will make a determination on the case. He said there's not a specific timeline as to when he needs to file his report.
Despite the oncoming winter and snowfall in the mountains, Jones cautioned anyone heading into the woods that bears can still be active.
"Don't be complacent because it's November," she said.
The grizzly bear is categorized as a threatened species under the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. In a March 2016 news release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the grizzly bear, citing "the successful recovery of one of the nation's most iconic animals."
Delisting opens the possibility of states to implement a grizzly bear hunting season. The grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which covers swaths of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, is estimated at 700 or more bears.