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Grizzly Bear /Human Fatality Report Released


Friday, December 14, 2001

State and federal wildlife officials today released the final report on the grizzly bear attack that caused a human fatality on October 30 on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.  Chris Servheen, the lead author of the report and the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Missoula, said the report summarizes everything we know about the incident and supports the conclusion that the female and two cubs destroyed at the attack site were the bears responsible for the fatality.

Servheen said, "The paw prints at the scene and the bite marks on the victim are consistent with the bears killed at the site."

Timothy Hilston, of Great Falls, was found dead on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area northeast of Missoula on October 31, by the Powell County Sheriff and the Powell County Search and Rescue team.  The 50-year-old elk hunter had been reported missing the previous day.  Evidence at the scene revealed that Hilston was attacked and killed the day before by a grizzly bear. An investigative team of eight wildlife biologists, technicians and enforcement personnel from USFWS, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Forest Service continued to gather evidence to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the hunter's death.  According to Bill Thomas, information officer for FWP in Missoula  "The interagency investigation team members have over 100 years of combined grizzly bear experience, including previous grizzly-caused human fatality investigations."

Laboratory examinations, conducted at the FWP Wildlife Research Lab and State Veterinary Lab in Bozeman, and the University of Idaho, included examination of feet and claws for fibers, radiographs of the forelegs for injury evaluation, examination of internal tissues for disease or injury, parasites, bite marks, DNA analysis, contents of the stomach and digestive track and a rabies test.  Measurements were taken to evaluate body condition and to obtain the weight and size of the bears.  The lab analysis showed that the bears were healthy and there was nothing in the digestive tracts of the bears related to the victim.

Servheen said. "A very small number of unnatural, unidentified items were detected in the digestive tracts of the bears, but we couldn’t clearly match them to the victim or to the scene of the incident."  He added that it was hoped that a match of DNA could be made between the samples collected at the attack site and the bears destroyed, but it was not possible to do so.  A complete genotype (genetic profile) could not be obtained from the bears destroyed, or from any hair or saliva samples taken from the attack site.  A reliable genotype could only be obtained from one of the scat samples collected at the attack site.

Hilston was attacked while he was field dressing an elk he killed.  The attack occurred in the morning, in daylight, in an open-forested area of the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA.  The openness of the site led bear experts to surmise that the bears approached Hilston and the elk carcass he was dressing out after seeing him at a distance of at least 20 yards.

"Once the bears surprised him, he may have backed up 20 feet from the elk carcass, where the attack took place,” Servheen said. “He was alone and was not carrying bear spray or a sidearm.  His death was caused by blood loss from a significant number of bites to the body."

Federal and state wildlife agency personnel set traps and snares and gathered evidence from the scene.  Tracks of a bear with a five-inch wide front pad and at least one young bear having about a four-inch wide front pad were found at the site.  Small bear scats, were also found and collected.

Officials said evidence indicated that bears visited the site three times after the attack.  The first time was on the evening of October 31.  The first traps were set at 1:00 a.m. on Nov. 1.  Bears returned between 2:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on November 1 and set off one of the traps, but were not captured.  An adult female and two cubs-of-the-year were captured and killed on November 2 at the site.  The last two visits to the site by the bears occurred after the team had removed the elk carcass, Thomas said.

The front pads of this family group matched the size of the tracks measured previously at the site.  Other measurements were taken and the bears were transported to the FWP Wildlife Research Laboratory in Bozeman.

Servheen said the bears were killed based on two fundamental assumptions bear experts use to deal with aggression that leads to an attack on a human. "The probability of the bears responsible being captured declines over time and that the bears returning to the attack site are most likely to be the bears involved," he said. "These bears were back at the site at least three times in 40 hours, and were the only bears to be at the attack site."

The attack was judged to be an aggressive encounter with the bear(s) initiating aggressive behavior toward the victim rather than defensive behavior.  A bear exhibiting aggressive behavior rather than defensive behavior towards people cannot be relocated to a remote area because human activity occurs throughout the range of the grizzly and the threat to human safety is too high.  FWP Information Officer Bill Thomas believes "It is our responsibility to protect human safety, and bears exhibiting aggressive rather than defensive behavior towards people are exhibiting unacceptable behavior."

Since cubs learn behaviors from their mothers, and these cubs were being taught to aggressively seek food at human elk kill sites, it is reasonable to assume they would get into further conflicts with humans as they grew up.  Also, the chance of survival of cubs, orphaned in their first year, is minimal.  Thus, it would not be possible to remove the female and release the cubs somewhere else and expect them to survive on their own.

Servheen said that "Based on everything we know, we are confident that these were the bears that attacked and killed Mr. Hilston."