JACKSON — The grizzly bear that caused tragedy high in the Teton Wilderness never let up from a full-bore charge before hitting the Jackson Hole outfitter she fatally mauled.
When the approximately 250-pound sow bruin first came into view, pounding downhill out of a clearing, Mark Uptain was removing the head of a four-by-four bull elk for his client, Corey Chubon.
It was Friday afternoon, and the elk’s four quarters had been removed without any sign of bears. Chubon had killed the elk with an arrow the day before, but the hunters didn’t find the carcass until Friday. Even so, the hunters saw no sign grizzlies had touched it.
The sow grizzly, in other words, was not coming back to claim her meal. Her 1 1/2-year-old male cub was nearby, but ultimately he was watching from the outskirts and wasn’t being threatened. Nevertheless, she was not bluffing.
“It just came on a full run,” said Brad Hovinga, who supervises the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Jackson Region. “There was no hesitation.”
Even for grizzlies, which are inherently protective and aggressive animals, this is unusual behavior.
“A female with a yearling attacking in this manner, I’ve never dealt with that,” said Dan Thompson, Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief.
The now-dead grizzly, around 10 years old, was in good shape, with plenty of fat and nothing outwardly wrong.
Chubon, who did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, provided the above account to Wyoming Game and Fish investigators. The Florida man, who was on a guided Martin Outfitters bow hunt with his father, relayed his recollection to Game and Fish at length on several occasions.
As the bear first hit Uptain, who carried bear spray in a hip-slung holster, Chubon went for a Glock that his guide had left with their gear a few yards uphill. For some reason, he could not get the handgun to fire. When the female grizzly diverted her attention away from Uptain and toward the Floridian, he tossed the pistol to his guide. Evidently, it didn’t make it to Uptain, who was a lifelong elk hunter, small-business owner and family man.
Within moments, the bear turned back toward Uptain. Chubon, whose leg, chest and arms were lacerated by the bruin, ran for his life. His last view of Uptain, which he relayed to investigators, was of the guide on his feet trying to fight off the sow.
In an interview with the Orlando, Florida TV station WKMG, he described Uptain as his hero.
“I’m just extremely blessed and fortunate to have made it out of this situation alive,” Chubon told WKMG.
Bolting from the chaos, Chubon huffed it uphill to the duo’s horses, mounted one and rode uphill to a ridgeline near the crest of 10,258-foot-high Terrace Mountain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Amazingly, he caught a signal to phone authorities, who flew in to rescue him. Teton County Undersheriff Matt Carr, who was among the first responders, said the call out was a feat in itself.
“I’m not quite sure how he did that, because there’s no cell service out there at all,” Carr said. “That’s something we could not duplicate when we were there on the scene.”
Using the description from Chubon, searchers in a helicopter were able to locate the elk carcass that caused conflict around 7 p.m. Friday. There was less than an hour of daylight left, and the call was made to suspend the search until sunup Saturday.
“We ran out of flight time,” Carr said. “Helicopter restrictions don’t allow us to fly past a hard-and-fast time. And by that point, we couldn’t get ground teams in. The risk to the rescuers was far too great at that moment.”
It will never be known exactly what unfolded between the grizzlies and Uptain after Chubon left the scene.
When Carr and Game and Fish wardens Jon Stephens and Kyle Lash arrived at the quartered elk early Saturday morning to continue the search, they initially assumed that a drag mark heading downhill was from Uptain. Later, investigators discovered this was the slick left from the elk’s gut pile.
“It was confusing, because there was blood and struggle and debris from the elk dying,” Hovinga said. “There was a blood trail from the wounded elk coming in. On the scene, it was difficult to determine whose blood was whose.”
The gut pile drag mark heading downhill drew searchers attention away from where Uptain had died 50 yards uphill from the elk carcass, in a grove of timber. The nature of the 37-year-old’s fatal injuries and lack of a drag trail uphill suggest that he was able to walk after the initial attack, about 50 yards, but ultimately was killed by the grizzlies near where he was found.
“From the nature of his injuries, his death was pretty instantaneous,” Teton County Coroner Brent Blue said. “His fatal injuries were fatal instantly. He wasn’t going to be walking after the fatal injury.”
Bites to Uptain’s head likely ended his life, Blue said. Although there was massive trauma, his body was intact and showed no signs of having been fed upon.
At some point during the struggle, Uptain was able to douse the adult sow with bear spray, which has a high probability of thwarting an attack.
“When we were looking at the [adult female bear’s] head,” Hovinga said, “we could smell it, and we could feel it.”
Hovinga was quick to point out that bear spray was not put to use at the time of the initial attack — perhaps because there wasn’t time.
“We feel that he deployed that bear spray sometime after the initial attack, but before he succumbed to his injuries,” he said. “A lot of people have said, ‘Well, he sprayed the bear, and it didn’t do any good.’ We can’t say that. We can’t say that bear spray wasn’t completely effective.”
The discharged canister was near where he died, not at the elk carcass downhill. The thrown firearm was found uphill of the bull elk’s scattered remains, but downhill and distanced from Uptain’s body.
After locating Uptain around 1:15 p.m. Saturday, Teton County Search and Rescue, Game and Fish and citizen search teams that grew to about 30 people flew out and rode out on horseback.
Game and Fish large carnivore biologists set out three leghold snares concealed in cubbies in an attempt to livetrap one or both of the grizzlies in the overnight hours. Aboard an airship that clattered overhead Sunday morning, they could not see if it worked. But after unloading from the chopper late Sunday morning, Thompson, Lash, Stephens and Game and Fish colleagues Brian Baker and Mike Boyce could make out bawls that told them they had captured the cub.
“Based on the vocalizations and the different tones, we knew we had a younger bear,” Thompson said.
The worst-case scenario was trapping the cub, with mom running free. That’s what happened. The quintet of biologists and wardens, four of whom were armed, chose a path in the relative open in the effort to gain a vantage point of the trap. The sow heard them coming.
“She appeared on a full charge,” Thompson said. “When she visualized five of us standing there, she paused for a second. We had guns up. There was a question, ‘Do we take her?’ I said take her.”
A barrage of gunfire ended the life of the grizzly that killed Mark Uptain. Her stomach was “full of elk meat,” one indication that told the Game and Fish folks that they had killed the right bear. Paws with pads and claws that matched tracks left at the scene the day before further corroborated the connection, and DNA evidence has been sent to a Laramie lab to cement that the right bears were killed.
The cub, about a 150-pound animal, was sedated before Thompson made the call to kill the sow’s dependent as well. His primary reasoning was that Uptain’s injuries suggested the cub was not a passive bystander.
“That yearling was involved in the attack,” Thompson said, “and was a contributing factor to his fatality.”
Asked if there were lessons to be learned from the fatal attack, Thompson said there was no “overt” wrongdoing or decisions made that belie best practices for hunting in grizzly country. Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief also stood behind his decision-making.
“I’m 100 percent confident that we removed the target individuals, and I’m also 100 percent confident that was the right thing to do,” Thompson said. “She was teaching an offspring that killing humans is a potential way to get food. We’ve had 10 other human injuries [from grizzlies] in the past couple years, and we haven’t attempted captures in those situations because of our investigations and the behavior of the bear.
“This was completely different, dangerous behavior,” he said. “It’s not something we want out there on the landscape.”