Evidence suggests bear spray stopped a grizzly bear attack after it mortally wounded hunting guide Mark Uptain Sept. 14, 2018, in the Teton Wilderness, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department investigation concludes.
The 34-page report released Friday says evidence suggests “the desire of the bears to feed on the elk carcass” spurred them to charge full speed toward the site where Uptain and client Corey Chubon were field dressing the kill.
The report, released following a records request by WyoFile, documents a Game and Fish probe of the saga in which Chubon, had “made a poor shot” on an elk with a crossbow the evening before the fatal bear encounter. It reveals new details in the drama and clarifies unsettled aspects, including how quickly Uptain died. The two were attacked when they returned to the Bridger-Teton National Forest the next day to find the dead elk.
The report and attached documents paint a graphic and terrifying scene in which Uptain screamed as the bears savaged him with teeth and claws causing about 38 puncture wounds and 14 lacerations, among other gruesome injuries. The report “does not include speculation about details not supported by evidence or the investigation,” the Game and Fish Department’s seven investigative team members wrote.
Agency employees killed the two bears — a mother and male yearling — “for public safety” after recovering Uptain’s body. They linked the animals to the fatal mauling through lab tests.
Uptain, who had a can of bear spray on his left hip, “did not deploy the spray at the time of the initial attack,” the report said. He sprayed the mother bear when it attacked him a second time.
An investigator told WyoFile in November he believed the spray “could have worked perfectly.” The report is now more certain.
“Evidence suggests that when Uptain deployed the bear spray, it stopped the aggression, giving him time to escape,” the report reads. “However, this appears to be after the fatal injuries were inflicted.”
The guide somehow went 50 yards from where he was attacked, fell, “dropped the bear spray and rolled to the base of a tree where he died,” the report reads.
Father of Five
Uptain, an employee of Martin Outfitters based in Moran, left a wife Sarah and five children. A gofundme campaign to support the family raised $210,000 from 2,013 donors in four months, according to the website.
Uptain saved Chubon’s life, the client told a television station in Florida, his home state. Uptain’s brother-in-law also heralded the guide.
“He had a chance to save himself after being attacked first and surviving that attack,” his brother-in-law wrote on the gofundme site, “but the bear went after the hunter, so Mark re engaged the bear.”
The site of the encounter lies about six air miles from the Turpin Meadows trailhead where the hunter and guide began their horseback excursions on two successive days, according to the investigation. The documents gave the following account.
Chubon wounded the elk the evening of Sept. 13. But he and Uptain could not find the animal and so rode horses back to the Turpin Meadow trailhead. The next morning, they rode to the top of Terrace Mountain, a 15-square mile landmark comprised of open grassy slopes, talus fields, rugged cliffs and dense pockets of spruce-fir evergreen trees.
“Grizzly bears inhabit the area,” the report says.
The two arrived at the top of the mountain — its true summit is at elevation 10,258 feet — at noon and tied up their horses. They went to the site where the elk had been wounded and resumed their search. They found the elk at about 1 p.m., at about 9,700 feet in a patch of timber “after following a large blood trail.”
The elk carcass appeared undisturbed, Chubon told investigators. The two began field dressing it for transport by horse when they heard rocks tumbling. Uptain had taken off his shirt and shoulder holster with his 10-mm Glock semi-automatic pistol and put them down about five yards away. His bear spray was in a holster on his left hip. Chubon had put his own bear spray in his backpack after it “became cumbersome carrying it on the horse.”
At about 4 p.m., two hours after finding the elk, the two had almost finished field dressing it. Two bears suddenly appeared from downhill “running at full speed directly toward them.” The bears came into the direction of the prevailing wind.
“Mr. Uptain began waving his arms and yelling at the bears moments before being attacked,” the report reads.
In a dizzying confrontation, the mother bear attacked Uptain at the elk carcass. Chubon dashed to the gear pile and grabbed the guide’s 10-mm Glock semi-automatic pistol.
Glock in hand, Chubon “approached Uptain but was unable to safely shoot without possibly hitting Uptain,” the report reads. The larger bear was the aggressor while the smaller yearling moved around in the background, Chubon told investigators. “Chubon stated he was unfamiliar with the functionality of the Glock,” the report says
The mother bear then turned from the guide and charged Chubon. He told investigators he could not remember if he tried to pull the trigger. Chubon sidestepped the charge but the bear grabbed his right boot and pulled him to the ground.
“…[H]e attempted to throw the handgun to Uptain who was now again yelling at the bear, but the handgun ‘landed short,’” the report reads. Chubon “inadvertently ejected the loaded magazine while trying to disengage the safety,” the report says.
The bear turned back to attack guide Uptain again ”at which time Mr. Chubon stated he ran as fast as he could,” the report states. Chubon never accessed or used his bear spray during the attack.
Chubon saw Uptain “on his feet fighting with the bear,” as he fled, the report says. “Chubon could hear Uptain scream as the bear tore into Uptain,” the documents say.
The client reached the horses, about 300 to 400 yards from the carcass, mounted, rode to the top of the mountain and called 911 with a cell phone.
A diagram of the scene shows the Glock lying near the elk carcass where Uptain was attacked. The fully loaded magazine was on the ground near the backpacks where the grizzly attacked Chubon.
Investigators found the Glock with the slide forward, without a bullet in the chamber. “The gun was not fired as a defense against the attacking grizzly bears,” the report reads.
Uptain finally discharged his bear spray and somehow walked 50 yards to where he died.
Guide died quickly
The investigation resolves earlier differences between the Teton County coroner and Game and Fish regarding whether Uptain could walk after being mauled. Coroner Brent Blue told WyoFile in November he did not see Uptain as “having any ability to move” after one of the bears pierced his brain with an incisor.
But Game and Fish believed then that the wounded guide staggered 50 yards before he expired.
In the report released Friday, Game and Fish quotes Coroner Blue’s “verbal description” of Uptain’s death as “rapid but not instant.” The wildlife agency also quoted a report by Blue that “Uptain died very rapidly after the initial grizzly bear attack.” Game and Fish did not attach the coroner’s report to its own investigation.
The Game and Fish report noted “vertical blood streaks” on parts of Uptain’s body and clothing, indicating that “he traveled upright at some point while bleeding.
“This evidence coupled with the lack of drag marks, signs of a struggle, or bear tracks at his body indicates that Uptain walked from the initial point of attack under his own power before he died,” the report says.
The bears did not disturb Uptain where he lay dead, the report says.
In addition to severe wounds to his head and thighs, the report says Uptain also suffered defensive wounds to his hands, wrists and arms. Chubon had a puncture wound to his ankle and abrasions and cuts.
The report included a Teton County Sheriff’s Office examination of the guide’s 10-mm Glock Model 20 semi-automatic pistol. That exam found the firearm “fully functional,” officials said last fall. A certified Glock advanced armorer examined the pistol
“The gun passed all function tests,” he wrote. “I did NOT test fire the gun.” The magazine was full with 15 rounds of “FC 10MM Auto,” flat-nosed, full-metal-jacketed rounds.
Why the bears attacked
The two bears were healthy, the Game and Fish report said. “Both bears appeared to be in good physical condition with normal fat deposits and no observed physical abnormalities,” the report reads.
Also, they appear to have never been captured for research or because of conflicts with humans. “Neither of the grizzly bears had any ear marks, tattoos, radio-telemetry transmitters, or personal-identification implants to indicate they had ever been previously handled by the WGFD or any other agency,” the report reads.
Game and Fish discounted the possibility that the bears saw the men as food. “This incident has no evidence to suggest that predation was the motivation for this attack,” the report says.
Game and Fish uses four categories to describe grizzly attacks on people — predation and three types of “defensive-aggressive attacks.” The latter are made in response to a perceived threat.
Defensive-aggressive attacks can occur when bears see humans as a threat to their food source, a threat to their offspring or a threat to their personal space. Bears also can make defensive-aggressive attacks when they experience a combination of those three factors, the report says.
“None of the three typical defensive-aggressive situations apply to this incident,” the report says.
Game and Fish said the incident “cannot be characterized as food-guarding.” That’s because, as Chubon stated, “the bears had not discovered the elk carcass before they attacked, and therefore, had not claimed it and been acting to defend it.”
The bears approached the men “and not vice-versa,” the report states. “…[T]herefore, the typical behavior of an adult female defending its offspring or itself by having their personal space invaded by a threat does not apply in this situation,” the report states.
“The evidence suggests that the desire of the bears to feed on the elk carcass was the motivating factor in the incident,” the report states. “The grizzly bears likely attacked the two men in an attempt to displace them from the elk carcass…. The aggressive nature of the attack was unprovoked by the two men and cannot be characterized as defensive,” the report says. A diagram indicates that the bears dragged a quarter of the elk from the scene.
“Although bears actively seek out ungulate carcasses and offal throughout the course of the year, the overt act of attacking humans to obtain a carcass is rare in the [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem],” the report states. “Based on the aggressive nature of the attack and investigation, including evidence collection and analysis, the decision to lethally remove the grizzly bears involved in the fatal attack was made for public safety.”
“Grizzly bears are extremely opportunistic and adaptable,” the report concludes, “and their behavior can be unpredictable.”