The Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recommended that a big game outfitting company “evaluate its training policy on bear spray use” after a grizzly bear killed one of its hunting guides.
OSHA also said in a “fatal alert” following the death of Martin Outfitters’ guide Mark Uptain, that the company should “evaluate its operating procedures for bear country.” OSHA is investigating Uptain’s death following an attack by a grizzly and her cub that also injured bow-hunting client Corey Chubon.
During a brief but deadly melee on the slopes of Terrace Mountain, six air miles from the trailhead in the Teton Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a mother grizzly charged the pair as they field dressed a bull elk, according to information from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and OSHA.
Uptain’s 10mm Glock semi-automatic pistol was with a pack and shirt a short distance away, and Chubon’s bear spray was in a pack, the state agencies said. The guide was carrying his bear spray and used it before he died — but not, investigators believe, before sustaining mortal injuries — Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Supervisor Brad Hovinga said in an interview with WyoFile.
Chubon, whom the bear also mauled, grabbed Uptain’s Glock but couldn’t get it to fire, Hovinga said.
A related investigation by the Teton County Sheriff’s office resolved a key question; whether Uptain’s Glock was in good working order.
Game and Fish turned the weapon over to the department, which gave it to its firearms expert, Lieutenant Matt Carr told WyoFile. “It was a fully functional Glock,” said Carr, the sheriff-elect of Teton County.
Neither Game and Fish nor OSHA have completed or released their investigations. While investigators begin to resolve some outstanding questions in the case and issue recommendations, other aspects remain unclear. Two timelines — one developed by Game and Fish, the other by Teton County Coroner Brent Blue — differ. The probes so far leave a foggy understanding of the sequence of events including the infliction of injuries to Uptain, his use of the bear spray, and when he died.
A fast, brief and deadly attack
Game and Fish and OSHA gave the following account of the incident. Chubon arrowed the elk in the evening of Sept. 13, Hovinga said. But the two couldn’t immediately find the mortally wounded animal. The next day, they discovered the elk carcass at the end of what Hovinga said was “a pretty good blood trail.”
There was no evidence, he said, that a bear had yet been to the elk carcass. Nevertheless, “I’m certain it was coming to the scent,” at the time of the attack, Hovinga said.
Before the two began field dressing the elk, “the guide removed an automatic pistol that he carried in a chest holster as well as his shirt and left them with the two men’s packs a short distance up the hill from the carcass…” OSHA wrote in its fatal alert.
“They had removed the intestines and all the guts and were quartering it up,” Hovinga said, Uptain was sawing off the elk’s antlers when the two heard rocks rolling “and turned and discovered the bear coming,” Hovinga said. “It just came to them immediately … at full speed,” over rolling terrain across which there was only a broken line of sight.
The bear hit Uptain as Chubon went for the pistol. “He said he had [the Glock],” Hovinga told WyoFile. “He had a hard time trying to find a clear shot.”
Chubon tried to shoot the bear, Hovinga said. “He grabbed [the pistol], was unable to make it fire,” Hovinga said. “There was not a round in the chamber, so the gun was empty. He couldn’t make the gun work.”
After hitting Uptain, the grizzly quickly turned and bit Chubon in the ankle.
“He swung me around in the air,” Chubon told WKMG Television in Orlando, Florida, near where he lives. That’s when Chubon threw the pistol toward Uptain.
It was “a matter of seconds” during which the bear attacked Uptain, turned on Chubon and then returned to further maul Uptain, Hovinga said.
But the Glock, “it didn’t make to Mark [Uptain],” Hovinga said. “The hunter fled.”
Chubon mounted a horse and rode to where he had cell service and called for help.
Operating the 10mm Glock
Searchers and Game and Fish personnel flew into the Teton Wilderness, found the site, discovered Uptain dead and ultimately killed both bears in a sequence of events documented by the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
Investigators found the Glock and its magazine in different locations, Hovinga told WyoFile. The evidence raised speculation that Chubon might have pushed the magazine release button below the trigger guard thinking it was a safety switch.
“In the process of trying to manipulate [it], we think he dropped the magazine, or it wasn’t engaged and it fell out when he picked [the pistol] up,” Hovinga said.
The Glock 10mm semi-automatic pistol has three safety features designed to prevent accidental discharge, according to web descriptions of the weapon, but none is an external “on-off switch” typical of many firearms. For safety reasons, many semi-automatic pistols are carried without a round in the chamber — essentially un-cocked.
To arm a semi-automatic pistol like the Glock, one must rack, or pull back, the slide, which is the top plate of the weapon. This moves a bullet from the magazine into the firing chamber and arms the firing pin. The operation is the equivalent of cocking a revolver, but less intuitive than the six-shooter action one typically sees in Hollywood Westerns. Once so armed, the Glock is ready to fire by only pulling the trigger.
(Glock lists the firearm as a “10mm auto”, however fully automatic varieties — continuous fire with the trigger depressed — are available only to privileged parties such as law enforcement. Civilian firearms are semi-automatic firing only one round per trigger pull)
WyoFile was unable to contact Chubon.
An uncertain chain of events
When the bear returned to attack Uptain the second time, Chubon retreated. The News&Guide first reported and Hovinga confirmed that Chubon told investigators his last view of Uptain was of the guide on his feet attempting to fend off the attack.
Investigators found Uptain’s body 50 yards uphill from the attack site. They found a canister of bear spray about five feet from his body, a canister that had been discharged and emptied.
“We believe the fatal injuries occurred prior to him deploying bear spray,” Hovinga said. “We feel like he got to the location where he died on his own. All evidence [is] he made it there under his own power.
“There was no evidence the bear had been to where the victim died,” Hovinga said. “We don’t know where the bear spray was sprayed, deployed. [Uptain] hadn’t deployed it before the hunter fled.”
Coroner Blue outlined the nature of the fatal injury.
(CAUTION: Graphic content follows.)
“He had an incisor piercing his brain that we feel is the fatal injury,” Blue told WyoFile. “We’re fairly confident the injury to his brain was the terminal event.
“Could he have staggered after that?” Blue asked. “I really don’t think so. I just don’t see him as having any ability to move after that. I can’t comment beyond that.”
The coroner said he also could not comment about how and when bear spray was deployed because neither he nor deputy coroner Dave Hodges, a sheriff’s office detective, was able to visit the site.
“We never got a chance to investigate the scene,” Blue said. Deputy coroner Hodges was at the helicopter base but “he did not go to the site when they were searching. When somebody dies, we’re supposed to own the scene,” he said, and nothing should be moved or changed before his office says so.
In a county with vast tracts of remote country and body recoveries sometimes occurring in mountainous terrain, however, that doesn’t always happen. “Many times we don’t get to the site,” Blue said.
He said he expects to meet with all county law enforcement to review protocol that gives the corner authority at death sites.
Despite seeming inconsistencies between Game and Fish and coroner’s outline of the events, Hovinga said he does not dispute any element of the coroner’s findings. “We support the coroner’s report,” he said.
OSHA weighs in
Hovinga said the encounter was unusual and “a really unique action” for several reasons. “What we typically see from grizzly bears is if they come in to somebody they typically try to posture and scare people away,” he said. That apparently didn’t happen in this instance.
“When people typically get hurt, it’s an aggressive defense behavior — food guarding, defense of young,” he said. “This showed no defense of young,” and there’s no sign the bears had discovered the elk carcass before the hunters and were trying to guard it.
Conflicts between bears and humans also occur during a surprise encounter when a hunter or hiker stumbles upon a bear. “There was no evidence this was a surprise,” Hovinga said.
“It really doesn’t fit,” the pattern of most grizzly encounters, he said. “It was purely aggressive behavior. It was toward these people for the elk. That’s not typically what we see from a family group of grizzly bears.”
Grizzly bears enter a state of hyperphagia in the fall, a condition that provokes gluttony in preparation for winter hibernation. They routinely feed on the gut piles of hunter-killed elk and, along with their cousins Alaska brown bears, are known to try to claim carcasses from hunters.
When OSHA investigates a workplace fatality, a category that includes Uptain’s death, it sometimes issues a fatal alert before concluding its investigation.
“Fatal alerts are one of the methods we use to make employers and employees throughout the State aware that a fatal incident has occurred and the circumstances surrounding the incident,” the agency’s website reads. “They are a brief summary of the information gathered by our office and contain a summary of the incident, causes, contributing factors, and recommendations to prevent recurrence from our point of view.”
OSHA listed several significant factors in the incident including the location of the Glock, the location of the two bear spray canisters over the course of the incident, and the fact a bear had not claimed the carcass before Uptain and Chubon discovered it. In addition, “The Outfitter was following the required ratio of one guide to two hunters per the rules set forth by the Wyoming Outfitters and [G]uides board.”
It then recommended “The employer should evaluate its operating procedures for bear country,” and that “[t]he employer should evaluate its training policy on bear spray use.”
WyoFile did not receive a response from Martin Outfitters to two requests for comment on Monday.
This is at least the second time the Wyoming agency has investigated a worker killed by a bear. In 2014 investigators determined that a bear or bears killed field worker Adam Stewart in the Teton Wilderness, and fined his employer Nature’s Capital $13,120 for infractions of workplace safety requirements.
Yellowstone National Park says “group size should be 3 or more,” for safe travel in grizzly country.
Much has been published on precautions to take in bear country and the efficacy of bear spray and firearms in bear encounters. In a 2003 bulletin titled “Tips for Elk Hunters in Grizzly Country,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends carrying pepper spray and knowing how to use it. It recommends removing the carcass from the area “as soon as possible” and to “immediately field dress the animal and move the gut pile at least 100 yards from the carcass.”
“Carry a defense readily accessible,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department advises. “The knowledge of how to use your defense should be automatic.”
“It is critical to remain vigilant,” when field dressing a game animal, the agency says in a video. “Both you and your partner should have a defense ready”
Other advice, including from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, says that once attacked, victims should lie face down with hands interlaced behind the neck and not move until a bear is satisfied it has neutralized the threat and leaves. The exception would be in the case of a predacious attack, such as when a bear stalks a sleeping person while looking for a meal.
Bear spray has been effective, according to a study of 83 encounters from 1985 and 2006 that was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. “Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters,” the review states.
A study of 269 incidents involving firearms and bears in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 showed that bears were killed in 61 percent of the incidents. “Although firearms have failed to protect some users, they are the only deterrent that can lethally stop an aggressive bear, reads the article “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” that the Journal of Wildlife Management also published.
“Our findings suggest that only those proficient in firearms use should rely on them for protection in bear country,” the authors wrote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compared the two methods of defense in a paper “Bear Spray vs. Bullets. Which offers better protection?” that is undated. “Based on [USFWS law enforcement] investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50 [percent] of the time,” the report reads. “During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says carrying a sidearm is “another option that can be effective, but only if the bearer is highly proficient with the weapon.” It also recommends trying to reduce exposure to predators while field dressing a game animal, writing “if possible, avoid opening the gut cavity until after you have salvaged all other edible meat.”
The “gutless method,” of field dressing may be one way to minimize scent during the quartering of a game animal. Many tutorial videos on gutless field dressing can be found online.
In Uptain’s death, the role bear spray played remains uncertain. “We know the bear was sprayed,” Hovinga said, because investigators detected spray on the mother after they killed it. “The can was empty,” Hovinga said. “The injuries likely occurred before he was able to deploy bear spray. It could have worked perfectly.”
“[Uptain’s] maneuvers yelling at the bears, trying to get them away from us … [without that]… I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to escape,” Chubon told the television station. He offered advice. “Make sure you have the right ammunition, the right firearm, make sure you have bear spray.”
A GoFundMe campaign to aid Uptain’s widow Sarah and their five children has raised $207,526 in the two months since his death.