The wildlife biologist was used to being alone in the woods.

His studies required him to spend weeks high up in the mountain solitude. So when a large upright figure collapsed his tent one night in the early 1970s, John Mionczynski knew it wasn’t another human.

He was studying bighorn sheep in the Wind River Mountains. From inside his tent, Mionczynski could see a distinct open hand with an opposable thumb, about twice the size of a human hand.

Mionczynski crawled outside and built a campfire. He could hear the creature breathing but couldn’t see it in the darkness. For 45 minutes it threw pine cones at him.

The biologist reported his experience to his boss. At least 25 stories of encounters with a large primate had come into the office that year.

Mionczynski’s boss asked: Do you believe in bigfoot?

I don’t think I do, he replied.

Mionczynski didn’t know what he encountered. It wasn’t a bear and it accurately threw pine cones, as a human would do. Mionczynski’s boss suggested he interview people who had made reports and start a file.

He would do so for the next 30 years, now spending eight to nine months of the year in the field studying the potential existence of a large North American ape. And Mionczynski isn’t alone.

To those who study the existence of bigfoot, or sasquatch, their dedication isn’t about belief. It’s a matter of science, evidence and objective research.

“To ignore data that’s coming in saying something is here, to ignore it is unscientific,” Mionczynski said.

The researchers

Before Mionczynski and Dr. Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University even met, their research crossed paths. They had visited some of the same people, a mountain man and a U.S. Forest Service patrolman in Washington who had encountered a sasquatch and found footprints in the woods. The researchers had the same approach to their studies; they worked in facts, not emotions, Meldrum said.

Mionczynski has worked as a government wildlife technician and as a consultant and instructor. Habitat studies are his expertise, and he has extensively researched both grizzlies and bighorn sheep. He has worked with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and developed the concept of goat packing to transport scientific equipment into remote research areas.

Meldrum is an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. He is an expert on primate evolutionary biology, the evolution of human locomotor adaption and bipedalism, the way in which we walk on two feet. He co-edited the book “From Biped to Strider: the Emergence of Modern Human Walking, Running, and Resource Transport.”

In 1996, Meldrum was visiting family in Boise, Idaho, when he decided to make a trip up to Washington with his brother to visit Dr. Grover Krantz, an anthropologist and leading sasquatch researcher. Meldrum examined Krantz’s collection of alleged sasquatch footprint casts, which Krantz would eventually give to Meldrum for his research years later.

On the way home, Meldrum made a surprise visit to Paul Freeman, once a Forest Service patrolman, who claimed to have encountered a sasquatch and made footprint casts.

Freeman said he had just found fresh tracks, too. Would Meldrum like to see them?

“The coincidence of it was disconcerting at first,” Meldrum said. Did Freeman somehow find out they were coming?

But Meldrum was astounded by what he saw. The tracks were fresh and clear. They were either the real deal or a clear hoax, he thought.

Meldrum and his brother got supplies to make casts. They remain some of the strongest prints in Meldrum’s collection of 200 casts and some of the most compelling evidence, Meldrum said. What he had captured was skin ridge detail. Just as we all have individually unique fingerprints, we have distinct footprints.

“There are a few other mammals that have texture to their pads, but typically that’s a primate characteristic,” Meldrum said.

What he captured was a real print, he believes.

“It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

One of Meldrum’s students was familiar with Mionczynski’s research and suggested they meet. The two spoke on the phone and met in Meldrum’s office. Meldrum knew footprints; Mionczynski knew habitat. They’ve been working together for the past ten years.

Sasquatch, a profile

Meldrum and Mionczynski’s research, often under the title of the North American Ape Project, has taken them from Canada down to Texas, including the Pacific Northwest, northern California and even Wyoming. Meldrum has also travelled to China, where he compared casts there to those taken in North America. The dermal ridges followed the same pattern, suggesting the existence of sasquatch in the mountains of western China.

The researchers have interviewed countless numbers of people who have reported sightings, but they don’t rely on that testimony alone.

“Visual sighting of brown and black fur isn’t a credible sighting,” Meldrum said.

Based on field research, Meldrum’s footprint expertise and Mionczynski’s studies of animal habitat and behavior, they’ve developed hypotheses about the North American ape:

* Meldrum and Mionczynski hypothesize the population size in North America to be 500 to 1,000 individuals. They guess that an individual male has a 1,000-square-mile home range, which overlaps with several females and their young, who have smaller home ranges. The researchers have observed a repeated appearance of the same footprints in the same home area.

* Males are estimated at 8 to 9 feet tall in stature, when standing upright on two feet. Females would be about 7 feet tall, adolescents 4 to 6 feet tall. Weight is estimated at 700 to 1,000 pounds, based on a model for grizzly bears. Mionczynski hypothesizes that the creature travels on both two legs and all fours. Meldrum has made casts of 16-inch footprints.

* The North American ape is likely an omnivore, eating fish, meat and plants. Sightings increase around elk season, which suggests to Mionczynski that the animal is particularly drawn to elk meat left behind by hunters. Mionczynski also believes it is a hibernating creature.

* No evidence suggests the use of tools or structured living space. They have language and are reclusive and highly intelligent. Mionczynski said the researchers have found evidence of sasquatches covering their tracks, literally brushing over their footprints with pine bows so as to stay hidden.

Perhaps the most interesting research lies in the food. Mionczynski identified a plant he believes attracts the animal. The berry-producing shrub is not common in Wyoming and is unique in the fact that it occurs after the first hard freeze of the year, in September. (He said he would not identify the plant for fear people would start looking for it.)

Meldrum found a distribution map for the plant. They overlaid it with a map of credible sightings from September and the following months.

“We found a correlation,” Mionczynski said.

Doubt

Both Mionczynski and Meldrum have caught flak for their work.

Mionczynski went underground for a period of time. After Meldrum appeared in the Discovery Channel documentary, “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” for which he also wrote a companion book of the same title in 2006, an Associated Press article quoted Idaho State University professors who lambasted his research. One even asked if Meldrum intended to research Santa Claus, too.

It upsets Meldrum when other scientists won’t even examine the evidence.

“As scientists, we’re obliged to consider this,” Meldrum said.

Funding for their research can be a challenge. Mionczynski said they will receive money from individual academics who recognize their research, but “much of the time we’re working on our own time and funds. ... If we’re all out (of money) for the year and we get a compelling report, we’re not going to leave that alone.”

Yes, the two researchers encounter hoaxes. But they can usually dismiss them outright. People will often use woodcuts to make footprints, but Meldrum can see they are not anatomically correct. Some have even used casts of potentially legitimate prints to make tracks, but Meldrum can spot those, too.

In Meldrum’s book, which is endorsed by Dr. Jane Goodall on its cover, he explains the field of cryptozoology, the study of hidden animals. Some creatures -- the unicorn, griffin, mermaid -- have proven to be legends. Others once thought to be imaginary are now commonplace, including the leopard, giraffe and crocodile.

The concept of sasquatch can’t be considered total myth. Man did once live alongside a giant ape, Gigantopithecus blacki, which has been estimated at 10 feet in height and 1,200 pounds in weight. Actual teeth and a mandible have been found in Southeast Asia. The extinct species existed for 1 million years, up to several hundred thousand years ago.

Where are the bones?

If sasquatch exists, then where are the bones? Why has a body not been found?

Meldrum asks you to stop and think for a moment. He has two reasons for you to consider.

Birth and death are rare events for an ape. If the animal lives more than 50 years on average and females only have a few young in their lifetime, your chances of finding a body are pretty rare, Meldrum explains. And animals that die naturally tend to hide themselves away, following instinct, he said. They don’t plop dead in the middle of an open field.

Consider the habitat, too. Wet, coniferous forests where sasquatches may live have acidic soil -- soil that is not kind to bone, Meldrum said. Bone that hasn’t corroded away would draw the attention of small animals, which gnaw on bone for the calcium.

If that’s not enough for you, let’s return to Gigantopithecus. It lived for 1 million years, that much is fact.

“And yet what do we have to show?” Meldrum asked. “We have a few jaws and a few isolated teeth.”

Meldrum and Mionczynski continue their research, most recently in Canada earlier this month. It will take DNA evidence to unequivocally prove the existence of sasquatch, and the scientists continue to search.

A Charles Darwin quote that hangs in Meldrum’s office serves as a reminder of the need for their work: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Tales from the Tribune

On Halloween, we renew our fascination with the unknown. We talk of ghosts, goblins, creatures lurking in the dark and just around the corner. The vastness of the Wyoming wilderness lets our minds wander.

This season, we will take a look at few Wyoming mysteries: alien abductions, the existence of bigfoot and the legend of the Little People. Consider the evidence and anecdotes and then decide for yourself: fact, fiction, or a little of both?

 * Oct. 31: Both American Indians and European settlers believed in the Little People, human-like creatures who stood no taller than our knees living in the mountains of Western Wyoming. Tiny mummies found deep in caves seemed to prove their existence.

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