Ten days before a bear killed him in the Teton Wilderness last fall, field researcher Adam Stewart told his boss he was worried about working alone in remote places at a time bears wanted to “fatten up.”
Stewart died of an attack — likely by a grizzly — Sept. 4, 2014, in the Cub Creek drainage of the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Teton Wilderness. Searchers discovered his remains eight days later.
A 31-year-old from Tennessee, Stewart was a veteran field hand, speed hiker and cyclist who had worked for the company Nature’s Capital LLC. for only about a month. His page-long email sent Aug. 25 said he understood the company wanted him to go into the Bridger-Teton National Forest alone. The U.S. Forest Service’s Region 4 contracted with the Boise, Idaho, environmental consulting company, to survey vegetation in a set of study plots, some of them in known grizzly country.
Stewart, a certified Wilderness First Responder, wrote Steve Rust, principal and senior ecologist at Nature’s Capital, that earlier last year he was told solo travel was unsafe. “Now, with the deadline looming and injured personnel, it has become expected I will work alone in more remote locations later in the season than I originally proposed,” Stewart wrote.
“Working alone increases risks and (the) possibility of death or lifelong disability…” Stewart’s email said. “…(H)alf-measures can have dire results working in remote areas with winter storms approaching and wildlife becoming more active.”
At 9:51 a.m. Sept. 4, 2014, Stewart left the trailhead at Brooks Lake, on his way to survey a plot in the Teton Wilderness about 8 miles away, according to an investigation by a Board of Review assembled by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. He entered his GPS coordinates and time on an electronic device and took off toward Bear Cub Pass and a 560-foot descent to roadless Cub Creek.
About 5 miles from the trailhead he set up a tent, hung his food, then hiked upstream toward the plot, still 3 miles and 1,600 vertical feet above. At 2:33 p.m., part way up a Cub Creek tributary, he paused to take a photograph that was time-stamped in his camera.
He then walked three tenths of a mile — a distance that could have taken as few as six minutes to cover — into woods where a bear attacked and killed him. Investigators found no bear spray or firearm with him or in his camp.
Family shared worrisome email
WyoFile obtained the email from Stewart’s family, whose members declined comment for this story. Stewart’s boss, Rust, said in an interview Stewart was cleared to travel solo, but he challenged other statements contained in the email.
“Yep, that is true,” Rust said of solo trips. “We did that. Obviously Adam worked alone in previous field seasons,” albeit for other companies and in different ecosystems. “We have had other individuals work alone as well,” Rust said. “It’s not entirely desirable from my standpoint. I don’t think we would do that in the future.”
Especially for overnight trips, “our standard approach is to have double-buddy system, but at times, … on some occasions, it is necessary to have an individual doing a solo trip,” Rust said. A double buddy system involves two teams of two.
Nature’s Capital was not rushing to meet a contract deadline, as Stewart wrote in his email, Rust said. “It is not true we were behind schedule.”
Stewart himself didn’t follow some safety procedures, Rust said. He should have had company-supplied bear spray which was available at the Nature’s Capital field office and housing where Stewart and other survey members stayed in Pinedale, Rust said.
“During the time period leading up to his fatal encounter with the bear he had not checked in, so that’s an example of a situation where he had not followed what our policy was,” Rust said. Carrying bear spray is a company requirement, Rust said.
Federal guidelines for the 444-page “Interior West Forest Inventory and Analysis” that Rust provided acknowledges that field hazards exist and says that “each person is expected to use care, common sense and judgment in their work to avoid injuries to themselves and fellow workers … Safety is everyone’s first priority.”
It also says workers should follow the advice contained in the U.S. Forest Service’s Safety Code Handbook. A 1999 version of that handbook, the latest available via an internet search, says backcountry solo travel shouldn’t be undertaken without safety gear, including various items ranging from matches to food and shelter. The book does not mention bear spray in the list but requires a “job hazard analysis,” to evaluate what additional “personal protective equipment,” might be necessary beyond what’s listed.
Forest Service mum on death, contracts
The Forest Service’s Region 4 office in Ogden, Utah, refused to provide WyoFile with copies of contracts and other documents involving Nature’s Capital that might detail safety requirements for workers.
Regional Forester Nora Rasure wrote in a Jan. 28 letter that releasing the documents requested by WyoFile “could reasonably be expected to interfere with (law) enforcement proceedings.” Another reason she gave cited federal rules aimed at preventing prejudicial pretrial publicity.
Releasing the documents “would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication,” her letter said. Forest Service officials also refused to be interviewed about safety protocols required of wilderness contractors.
Wyoming’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration told WyoFile last fall it was investigating Stewart’s death as a workplace fatality. In recent weeks, officials would not comment on the status of that investigation other than to say it was ongoing.
Stewart’s email also talked about another survey plot 17 miles from a trailhead that he said would be dangerous to visit alone because of nearby bears. That site — known as “Plot 558” — is in the Teton Wilderness, Rust said, but not in the Cub Creek drainage. Stewart’s email nevertheless underscores his wariness of traveling alone in remote grizzly habitat.
WyoFile was unable to determine where Plot 558 is located. Rust said the coordinates of the sites are confidential under forest service rules. Although Plot 558 is not where he was killed, Stewart said in his email, it was 5 miles from a site, “that historically was home to 4 grizzlies.”
“One individual attempting this plot (558) would be foolhardy,” Stewart wrote. “This late in the year, not only is the weather nasty and likely to change during the course of the hike in/out, bears are thinking of hibernation, so wanting to fatten up.
“This plot (558) should have two people,” Stewart wrote. “I would much prefer to visit this plot with another individual who has experience in the wilderness in bear country and who is in excellent physical condition for 34 miles of hiking a trail that is probably not often traveled.”
Yet on Aug. 24, Stewart wrote that he understood he would have to make some trips — if not the 17-mile one — alone.
“As I mentioned before, when I suggested such a (solo) trip in the past, I was told it was unacceptable as I was not qualified, it was unsafe, and was not in line with (Wilderness First Responder) mentality,” he wrote. “Now, with the deadline looming and injured personnel, it has become expected I will work alone in more remote locations later in the season than I originally proposed.”
In his email, Stewart also complained some of his four teammates were not healthy enough, in shape for, or dedicated to the work. Rust dismissed those email passages as reflections of normal interpersonal dynamics common in a small group. He telephoned Stewart, Rust said, and talked through the problems raised in the email. Some of Stewart’s statements in his email were not factual, Rust said.
Attack result of surprise encounter
The Board of Review conducted by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee determined that a bear attacked Stewart a few feet from where searchers found his remains — and the remains of two deer — eight days after he was killed. The Fremont County coroner told the Associated Press the bear was probably a grizzly.
Evidence “indicates a strong possibility that the fatal attack was the result of a combination of; 1) an encounter with a bear on a food source; and/or 2) a surprise encounter with a bear due to the poor visual sight distance,” on Stewart’s route, the Board of Review said. The report includes other graphic information, some of which is reported below.
The attack site is wooded and just over a rise in a trail that offered limited sight ahead while hiking uphill as Stewart was.
Investigators found Stewart’s green ballcap and sunglasses at the point of attack. Twenty-seven feet away, “Mr. Stewart’s remains were almost totally consumed and scattered in a food cache typical of a bear,” the report said.
“We assumed that the remains of both mule deer were present before Mr. Stewart entered the site,” the report said. Two bear day beds were nearby, one just feet from the trail and the three carcasses.
Although the report says it is possible a cougar could have killed one or both of the deer, investigators documented and identified only two bears at the fatality site, one male grizzly and one male black bear.
“There was no evidence of any other large carnivores at the fatality site like wolves or mountain lions,” the Board of Review said. Investigators identified two other grizzlies “in the general vicinity,” of the attack. Investigators collected samples from as far away as a half mile.
DNA analysis shows none of those bears was in the Yellowstone ecosystem database and therefore “none had been previously captured,” the Board of Review said. Further, there is “no definitive evidence,” to tie any of the bears documented at or nearby the site to Stewart’s death.
Bear hair found on Stewart’s clothes
The closest evidence of any bear to the victim was bear hair “most probably grizzly bear” – on his clothing, according to a Wyoming Game and Fish Department laboratory examination included as an appendix to the Board of Review report. The laboratory examination also found human tissue and bone in bear scat, but was unable to identify what species of bear it came from.
“The conclusion of the Board of Review is that Mr. Stewart likely surprised a bear at close range that was at the site of two mule deer carcasses,” the IGBC report said. “There was limited visual sight distance at the fatality site. The evidence suggests the likely impetus for the attack by a bear was a combination of defense of a food source (the deer carcasses) and a surprise encounter in an area of limited visual sight distance, and not predation. The majority of Mr. Stewart’s body was consumed by (perhaps several) scavenging animals, sometime during the 8 days between his death and when his remains were recovered.”
Stewart’s death was an accident, Fremont County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Jason Cox said in an appendix to the IGBC report.
“According to the documents of the forensic Pathologist James Wilkerson the matter of death was classified as accident,” Cox wrote. “In Dr. Wilkerson’s opinion Adam Stewart died of blunt force injuries, and injuries consistent with a bear bite and subsequent extensive defleshing.”
The Board of Review offered a different conclusion from Cox and Wilkerson. “The coroner determined he had died from blunt force trauma received from a bite to the skull,” the Board of Review report said. The 11-member board, made up of bear experts, used and incorporated Cox’s report, information from the Fremont County coroner and Wyoming Game and Fish lab results.
Cox’s sheriff’s investigation paraphrased Rick Weathermon, a senior researcher at the University of Wyoming who is an expert and author on human remains. “It was his opinion although no single trauma event was evident on the remains, the cumulative evidence strongly suggest that this is a case of large carnivore predation and subsequent consumption.”
Not an ambush killing, expert says
Regardless of whether Stewart died of a bite to the skull or a more extensive mauling, the Board of Review doesn’t believe a bear hunted or ambushed Stewart, said Chris Servheen, recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Montana, and the chairman of the review board. A predatory attack is similar to one in which a bear “enters a campsite (and is) trying to get in somebody’s tent at night,” Servheen said.
But Stewart “walked into the bear,” Servheen said. That’s different from “a bear approaching a person.”
When a bear attacked Stewart, Servheen said, it was “doing what bears do … defending a food source. That’s not a predatory attack – (it was) a surprise encounter and defense of a food source.”
Despite the two deer already at the site, Servheen said it was unlikely bears used the location to ambush animals.
“Bears are not ambush predators,” he said. “We’ve never seen such ambush behavior in a bear.” Also, “deer are not common prey species. We can’t imagine that a bear was catching deer at one spot.”
The report left open the possibility a cougar had killed the deer, but no evidence of a cat was found in the area. The deer cache perplexed the interagency review board. Stewart’s body was cached in a dirt mound with the remains of a doe. A bear or bears had mounded debris on a buck deer carcass — believed to have been killed after the doe but before Stewart — a few yards away.
“The fact that there were two mule deer carcasses at the fatality site seems unusual,” the report said. “Whether these mule deer were killed by a bear (or bears) or other animals, such as a mountain lion, are unknown … There was no available evidence as to why the remains of 2 mule deer were present at the fatality site,” the IGBC report said.
One bear scat at the “crime scene” had human bones and tissue, the Game and Fish lab analysis said. Another sample south of the site had beef bone. A third bear scat near a deer carcass had deer bone and tissue and other bone and tissue that couldn’t be identified.
Dangers identified in file reports
Nature’s Capital field team members receive a folder for each survey site, and observations about bears and other dangers should be included in those files, Rust said. “In many of the plots there were records of crews previously observing grizzly bears on the plot or in the vicinity of the plot,” he said.
The plot in the Cub Creek area “had no record in that information of there having been grizzly bear(s) in the plot in the Forest Service records for that plot,” Rust said. The Board of Review also said no grizzlies were known to be around. “There were no radio-collared grizzly bears in the vicinity of the fatality area at any time during Mr. Stewart’s disappearance and during the subsequent search and rescue operation.”
However, twice earlier in the year at other locations Nature’s Capital workers turned around “because of the evidence of grizzly bears on the site,” Rust said. One crew encountered a carcass in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, he said. “They felt the carcass was on their safest route to the plot and the plot was close enough to the carcass they determined it was a hazardous condition. They turned around and did not complete the plot.
A similar thing happened in the Teton Wilderness, Rust said. When hazards prevent workers from getting to a site, “the contract is still paid for having completed the plot,” Rust said. “In this particular protocol, allowing the contractor to make that hazard condition (determination) is a fairly high (safety) standard.”
The board of review also published a list of recommendations for work in occupied grizzly bear habitat. It calls for bear safety training and says a party of two or more, or working from horseback, is safer than traveling alone. The recommendations promote bear spray, an itinerary and regular check-ins. “The board reiterates that there is no guarantee of safety when working in bear country and that application of these practices may not have changed the outcome of the Adam Stewart fatality.”
Stewart’s Brentwood, Tennessee, obituary called him an “avid adventurer, enthusiastic cyclist, backpacker, nutritionist, ardent environmentalist and Wilderness First Responder.” He had a degree in environmental science from University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and worked across North America and abroad. “He planted trees in British Columbia. He tagged sea turtles in Costa Rica and migratory birds in Alaska and the Farallon Islands,” the obituary said. Stewart hiked Scotland and Ireland, backpacked in Europe and “cycled across the USA.” He was rafting guide in New Mexico and an outfitter in Zion National Park, where he listed Virgin, Utah, as his home. Tom and Cathy Stewart were his parents, Emily and Lauren his sisters.