New Animal Attack Response Team Prepares For More Human-Grizzly Conflicts

Sep 25, 2020

"It all began with an incident that we had two years ago where we had an outfitter and his client that were involved in a grizzly attack," recalled Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr. His office was notified by the client who had fled the scene.

"We knew the guide had been attacked. We were losing daylight," he said. "It was trying to decide how do we safely insert a team into this situation knowing that there's been an attack and that there are grizzlies."

Carr said search and rescue was able to find the client, but by that time it was dark. The situation was made more dangerous by the presence of a grizzly sow and a cub or two. So they decided to hold off until the next light to try to find the outfitter. He was found dead the next day.

"It was just trying to think of the best scenario on the fly. It was nothing that we had planned for," said Carr.

During the incident review, they realized search and rescue has response plans for all different situations.

"We have a swiftwater response plan. We have an avalanche rescue plan. And we have a cave rescue response plan," said Carr. "So why not look at this, because it's an incident that seems to be happening on an, unfortunately, more regular basis with these encounters. We should look at it from that approach."

That approach was the decision to create a specialized response team just for animal attacks in the backcountry. AJ Wheeler is one of the search and rescue volunteers.

"We are a team within the team, which is not the normal paradigm for Teton County Search and Rescue," Wheeler said. "We generally try to train all of our rescuers in every discipline. [But] because of the specialized nature of this team, it is a limited selection."

Fifteen volunteers made up of Wyoming Game and Fish Search and Rescue members and Teton County sheriff officers had to go through physical, firearm and animal behavior training.

"We are constantly training our fitness, so we're all expected to keep our fitness up," said Wheeler. "We've had training with Wyoming Game and Fish on animal behavior and how to stay away from aggressive animals by identifying animal attack patterns and those kinds of things."

The team has the goal of reaching the individual as quickly as possible in order to try to save their life. In addition to identifying animal attack patterns, Wyoming Game and Fish's Brian Debolt said the team has been taught how to prepare the scene for an investigation.

"Kind of things to look for... to determine what the cause of the attack may have been. Again, is it just a normal defensive attack, which is most common, and were other cubs present, is there some sort of food present?" said DeBolt. "All these things that they need to be aware of, as to what may have provoked this attack."

Not only does this help the team provide information for a Game and Fish investigation, but also first responders are better aware of the situation they are walking into.

"These are the things you need to be aware of, and be on the lookout for. So you don't put yourself in a dangerous situation, and we don't have an additional victim... one of the first responders. We don't want those folks to stand up as victims as well," he said.

As more people are recreating in the backcountry, it could lead to more encounters with wildlife. This year alone has seen a high increase of human-grizzly bear encounters, though none have been fatal so far. But AJ Wheeler said usually hunting season is when these types of encounters are most likely to occur.

"Just the nature of hunters and where hunters are, we definitely see an uptick in animal encounters," said Wheeler. "And that's really the area that we're looking to be able to deploy this team to protect our teammates, who are performing the search and rescue function."

Wheeler said only time will tell if their new approach pays off.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.