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Grizzly fatal: Bear likely defending carcass before attack

By Rob Chaney

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    Montana (Missoulian) — Investigation of a fatal grizzly mauling last spring near West Yellowstone didn’t yield many new insights, but did come with a strong warning.

“Human use in grizzly bear habitat is increasing, bear numbers are increasing and distribution is increasing, and more people are encountering grizzlies,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Hilary Cooley told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee this week.

“That reiterates the necessity to know and use bear safety recommendations,” she added.

Cooley led a team reviewing the death by grizzly attack of Carl Mock on April 15. It was the first of two deadly incidents for Montana in 2021, and the 18th Yellowstone-area fatality since 1892.

The second incident, involving the death of Leah Davis Lokan in Ovando on July 5, remains under investigation. Cooley said that report should be finished later this winter.

Mock, 40, worked as a guide for Backcountry Adventures. His family described him as a gentle giant — 6 feet, 7 inches tall and always with a pet nearby. He’d been living in West Yellowstone for 14 years.

On April 15, he was hiking alone near the Baker’s Hole campground three miles north of West Yellowstone. The campground lies near the north end of the West Yellowstone airport runway, between Highway 91 and the Madison River.

He had taken some fishing gear and a camera into the closed campground and walked about a quarter-mile from the gate along a ski trail and old logging road spur. He apparently surprised the grizzly around 3:30 p.m. He discharged a full can of bear spray at the grizzly during the attack.

Mock was able to call 911 and report the bear attack, and a search and rescue team got on the trail within 10 minutes. But before they reached him, they found the suspect bear.

“The bear was standing on its hind legs and making huffing noises at us,” Gallatin County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Gavagan wrote in his incident report. “The bear then dropped to all fours and charged us, breaking off his charge after about 30 yards. We were yelling and hollering at the bear as he charged. Dispatch notified us that Mock could hear us yelling and he said the bear was very close to him.”

Mock was still able to talk on the phone, and reported hearing the officers yelling at the bear. They found him a few minutes later. The grizzly kept stalking the party, moving in an arc varying 20 to 70 yards away and making one more bluff charge while the rescuers were giving first aid.

Gavagan reported Mock was losing large amounts of blood from wounds to his head and neck. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Ryan Linhart took off his uniform and used his T-shirt to help stanch the bleeding.

Two Gallatin County Search and Rescue members arrived on snowmobiles and hauled Mock out on a rescue toboggan. Although a helicopter had been dispatched, weather conditions collapsed over the afternoon and made flying unsafe. So he was taken by ambulance 115 miles to a hospital in Idaho Falls.

Meanwhile, a crew of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, West Yellowstone Police, Gallatin County Sheriff and Forest Service Law Enforcement officers returned to the site to take photos and investigate. They found Mock’s camera and fishing gear, along with the spent can of bear spray and some other personal items.

Mock died of injuries to his head and neck on April 17. He was not able to speak with investigators again after his rescue.

What nobody, including Mock, noticed until the next day was the presence of a moose carcass 47 yards away from the attack site. Investigators found it shortly after killing the grizzly on April 16.

The grizzly Bear No. 449 was 6 years old when it was first captured, radio-collared and tattooed in a research survey in 2003. It lost the collar the following year and never showed up in Yellowstone conflict or research reports again until this incident.

On April 15, it weighed 411 pounds and was 24 years old. It was in good body condition, although its teeth were worn and damaged. Its stomach was full of moose meat, and one bit of tissue that turned out to be from another grizzly bear.

That tissue “indicates 449 had possibly been in a very recent fight with another grizzly bear defending the moose carcass or fought taking the moose carcass from another grizzly bear,” the report stated. “If this were the case, those interactions could have contributed to bear 449’s overall aggressive defense of the moose carcass toward Mr. Mock, initial SAR and the investigation team.”

Scat around the moose carcass indicated the grizzly had probably been feeding there for several days.

As officers put up barricades warning people to stay out of the area, they encountered one person who “commented they had heard of a bear attack and were out looking to take pictures of the bear.” Another pair of photographers working the area before the attack reported a sow grizzly and two cubs were active in the area as well.

The hunt At the hospital, Mock had been placed on a ventilator and was no longer able to talk. The weather was getting worse, with rain or snow likely to cover what evidence or tracks remained at the scene. Plus, rumors of grizzly activity had already brought spectators cruising the area, and the coming weekend would add more people to a routinely popular fishing and hiking area.

At 2 p.m. on April 16, a Wildlife Human Attack Response Team of seven men and a search dog returned to the attack site. After walking 45 yards down the trail from Baker’s Hole Campground, they fired “cracker rounds” into the trees to alert wildlife of their presence. Loki the search dog started barking, alerting that it smelled a bear.

The initial plan was to see if they could bump the bear off the carcass and make it leave the area. But if it got aggressive, the fallback was to kill it.

One team member could see something moving about 50 yards to their east. They fired three more cracker rounds and traveled another 80 yards. Uncertain what was paralleling them, the team kept moving and fired two more cracker shells. Loki kept growling and barking. They saw some brush move across an open boggy area about 50 yards away.

At 2:35 p.m. Bear 449 “silently charged out of the brush, head down, ears back and running full out,” the report stated. The bear crossed the open wet area and continued charging toward the team members, running into a patch of deep rotten snow in the willows. The bear floundered in the deep snow, dug its way clear and began to charge again. At this point the decision was made to shoot the bear.”

FWP game warden Robert Pohle wrote that the bear’s determination to punch through the deep snow convinced him it was not a bluff charge.

“In the event the bear cleared the deep snow and regained traction, there would be no time for the team to react before contact was made with a human, resulting in serious injury or death, Pohle wrote. “In the split second it took to process what was taking place, I made the decision I was going to engage the bear and shoot it before it was able to gain traction again. I called out loud that I was taking a shot, before firing my shotgun. Afterwards I learned both Specialist Frey and Smith called out to shoot as well.”

The grizzly slumped in the snow after being hit, but started moving again. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Noah Pieprzyca raised a 45/70 Government rifle, designed for very large game, and fired twice.

“Once shot, it is absolutely imperative to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering of the bear and for public safety, we ensure the bear is deceased,” Pohle wrote.

The team didn’t know if it might be part of a family group, in which case a surviving sow or cub might attack as well. Several stood guard while Pohle and Specialist Jeremiah Smith rolled the carcass over and confirmed it was a male. SSS also discovered it had charged over the cached moose carcass it had buried. Officers dynamited the carcass to discourage other bears or scavengers from the area.

Mock’s camera had no pictures of the incident on its memory card. Friends set up a donation account to cover his medical and funeral expenses. It raised more than $32,000. He died of a massive stroke while in the hospital. At his family’s wishes, surgeons removed his liver, heart, both kidneys and pancreas for donation.

“He didn’t make a lot of money,” Carl’s father, Chuck Mock, said. “I told him, ‘You have no retirement or medical insurance.’ He didn’t care because he was doing what he wanted to and living where he wanted.”

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