The funeral of Mark Thomas Uptain was held last Wednesday at First Baptist Church in Jackson, Wyoming. He was a devoted husband and father of five children. He was an elder of the church, an outdoorsman, and a part-time hunting guide. He was killed by a grizzly bear on September 14, 2018.
Grizzly fatalities in Wyoming are not as common as one might suppose. Since statehood in 1890, there have been a total of twelve. The first was Phillip H. Vetter, killed in his cabin near Greybull in 1892.
Most have been killed within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. These include Frank Welch (1916), Martha Hansen (1942), Harry Walker (1972), Brigitta Fredenhagen (1984), William Tesinsky (1986), Brian Matayoshi and John Wallace (killed 7 weeks apart in 2011 by the same bear), Adam T. Stewart (2014), and Lance Crosby (2015).
Only three bear fatalities occurred outside the park boundaries. After Vetter in 1892 we did not have another one until June 17, 2010. Erwin F. Evert, a hiker and field biologist was in the Kitty Creek drainage of Shoshone National Forest. A bear research team was also operating in the area. Evert happened upon a bear that had been trapped, tranquilized and released earlier in the day. It killed him without provocation.
The third grizzly fatality to happen outside the park took place last Friday when Mark Uptain was slain. The hunting guide from Jackson Hole was retrieving an elk with his client, Corey Chubon, when a sow charged him and killed him after a prolonged struggle.
Details remain unclear. It would seem, however, that without either bear spray or his side arm, Uptain fended off the initial attack. He then walked about 50 yards uphill toward his horses when the bear returned with her cub killed him with an instantly fatal bite. In this second struggle he managed to douse the sow with bear spray.
Uptain’s body was found on the following afternoon. An empty can of bear spray was recovered nearby. Based on his injuries, wardens and biologists concluded that both the sow and her cub together attacked the guide. At that point, traps were set for the bears.
On Sunday, September 16, searchers returned to find that the cub had been caught in a trap. Suspecting that the sow was nearby, they approached cautiously. Suddenly, the sow appeared and charged the group of five. Dan Thompson, Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief, gave the order to fire. Two of them did, killing her instantly.
The she-bear smelled of bear spray, further confirmation that they had killed the culprit. After sedating the cub, Thompson decided that it should be destroyed as well.
“She was teaching an offspring that killing humans is a potential way to get food,” Thompson explained. “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. It’s not something we want out there on the landscape.”
The investigators and wildlife biologists remain puzzled by the behavior of these bears. To be sure, grizzly bears are aggressive and inherently dangerous. However, it is highly unusual for them to attack human beings unprovoked. Almost every grizzly fatality can be traced either to a sow protecting her threatened cub, or either sex fighting for a carcass that it had claimed.
In this case, neither scenario was true. The downed elk that Uptain was dressing had been undisturbed and there was no sign that a bear had been nearby. As for her cub, the two men had been working in the area and making noise for an extended period of time before the bear attacked. There is no way they could have surprised an unsuspecting bear.
Rather, every sign indicates that the sow and her cub stalked the two men. Bears in the wild typically avoid human beings. With too much bear-human interaction they may become indifferent to human presence. But that a bear would hunt down human beings, and teach its cub this behavior, is a frightening development.
Sy Gilliland, owner of SNS Outfitter and Guide, has 41 years of experience as a guide in Wyoming and Montana. He is currently a member of the governor’s Animal Damage Management Board. Commenting on Uptain’s death, he said, “I can only imagine how horrific this was. You’ve got a bear population that’s basically un-hunted, is an apex predator, and has no fear of humans.”
He speaks for many in the Yellowstone area who have been trying for more than a decade to return management of the grizzlies to local control. In 1975 the U.S. Game and Fish listed the Yellowstone grizzlies as a “threatened species.” The National Park Service website says that, at the time, there were only 136 grizzlies in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem and that by March of 2018 the number was 690.
These numbers are quite different from a 2014 report of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. That report estimated the population at 757 bears while admitting that “we are underestimating probably by about 40 percent.”
Most believe the population to be closer to 1,200. At any rate, a grizzly recovery plan was implemented in 1993 with three specific goals that needed to be met before the bears could be delisted. Those goals were met for six consecutive years by 2003. Nevertheless, it took four more years of legal wrangling to delist the bears in 2007.
Immediately, radical environmentalists filed lawsuits and, by 2009, a federal judge had ordered the relisting of grizzlies. After eight more years of study and a steadily growing population, U.S. Fish and Wildlife again delisted the bears in 2017.
Wyoming planned a hunt to cull 23 bears from the Designated Management Area outside the Yellowstone. However, two days before it was to begin a federal judge in Missoula, MT (an Obama appointee) blocked the hunt, siding with the plaintiff who argued that the bears are still in danger of extinction.
In the 43 years since first listing the bears, not only has the population grown far past the original recovery goal, but the range of the Yellowstone bears has extended far beyond the Designated Management Area where they are being counted.
Recently grizzlies with their cubs were sighted in the towns of Cody and Dubois. These bears and many others are not counted in any studies. Something must be done.
Every year the number of grizzly-human encounters grows. It has become so common for hunters to be injured by bears that they are hardly reported any more. Gilliland said, “We’re at a point where the bears need to be under state management. If we don’t do it with sportsmen and hunters, we have to do it with control action. And that control action means government wildlife personnel killing rogue bears as they did last Sunday morning.”
Every year government wildlife managers kill 15-20 bears that have become dangerous. About the same number are killed by hunters in self-defense or by ranchers protecting their livestock.
Yellowstone National Park has long been famous for the dangerous possibility of grizzly encounters. It is one of the charms of America’s most famous playground. Since their 1975 listing as a protected species, the park has become increasingly dangerous.
But now that the delisting battle has been raging for fifteen years, people are increasingly threatened outside the park. Mark Uptain is only the latest casualty. After more than a century with no grizzly fatalities outside the park, we have had two in the last eight years. There will be more. The 1993 grizzly recovery plan was designed to balance a healthy grizzly population with common-sense safety for Wyoming’s citizens. It’s time that we value human life enough to follow it.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.