The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
by Maximillian Werner
Despite Wyoming Game and Fish’s official conclusion to the investigation into Mark Uptain’s death, the only takeaway from which is that they killed the “right” bears, I still find myself troubled by reporter Mike Koshmrl’s account of the incident. Between his innuendo and comments made by Wyoming Game and Fish’s large carnivore chief, Dan Thompson, together with Jackson regional wildlife supervisor Brad Hovinga’s puzzling and often contradictory statements, “conclusion” is not the word that comes to mind as I try to understand why this event occurred and, more importantly, how to prevent it from happening again.
Hovinga has a tough job. For starters, he’s a first responder. I can only imagine what it must have been like for him and his colleagues to have discovered Uptain’s body. On top of that, he must also investigate conflicts between humans and wildlife and, ultimately, communicate his findings (as well as the actions based on them) with all affected parties in the clearest, most accurate way possible—all while looking out for the interests of wildlife. As someone who was not there, I, along with the rest of the concerned and unknowing public, must rely on the official account of what transpired. In short, I must take Hovinga and the others at their word. But as someone who is interested in an unbiased and realistic account of what happened up there on the mountain and why, I’m not convinced that the official explanation will do.
One thing we know for sure is that grizzly attacks are rare and fatal grizzly attacks are even more so. When bear attacks do occur, I want to know why, not for the purpose of assigning blame, but in an effort to identify changes that need to be made in order to improve the safety of bears and humans. The accounts provided by wildlife officials are a crucial part of this process insofar as they affect public perceptions of wildlife, wildlife conflict, and the role the humans play in it. Thus the more accurate the account, the more useful it will be. Similarly, as coverage of the Uptain attack clearly shows, the media also share the responsibility of presenting the public with an informed picture of what happened. At best, reporters check-and-balance their sources by contextualizing their comments. At worst, they provide their sources with an echo chamber. Koshmrl’s coverage of the Uptain incident belongs in the second category.
Koshmrl’s most recent treatment of the subject begins with the sensational lead Killer griz never slowed charge, a moniker with no obvious purpose other than to perpetuate the myth of the malicious, rogue predator and to promote readership. This view of the event continues in the first sentence of the article, where Koshmrl writes, “The grizzly bear that caused tragedy high in the Teton Wilderness never let up from a full-bore charge before hitting the Jackson Hole outfitter she fatally mauled.” By assigning causation to the bear (later he mentions the “elk carcass that caused conflict”), Koshmrl is doing his part to uphold the taboo of even suggesting that the victim may have played a role in creating the conditions that ultimately led to his demise. Was Uptain responsible for the attack? It’s hard to say. Did Uptain play a role in the attack? Of course he did. Hovinga’s job is to figure out the nature and extent of that role and Koshmrl’s job is to report on it. If any mistakes were made, we can learn from them. This is how information is created, gathered, and disseminated, at least in theory.
As an outdoorsman, father, and lover of life, I was saddened by the news of Uptain’s death. I felt bad for him and for his family. But I can separate my emotional response to his death from my equally powerful need to understand it rationally. That is, I can mourn Uptain’s death and consider it objectively. I know of course that Uptain’s family may not see it this way. They lost a father, husband, a son, and friend. But neither rightly nor wrongly, the moment Uptain’s death became public, he joined a select group of people to have been killed by a grizzly bear, an event that, however horrific, requires more than an emotional response if we are to use it to our benefit. We honor the dead out of love and loyalty, but we also honor them because they teach us how to stay alive. This is what we do. The key is to do it in the most tactful and honest way possible.
Emotion alone isn’t going to save bears or humans going forward, but objectively analyzing the particulars of the encounter just might. Uptain, Chubon, the bears, the time of year, the timing, the direction of the wind, the gut pile, the elk, and the circumstances of its death: All are variables that, when taken together, led to this outcome. This is a fact. If our only objective is to mourn Uptain, then some discretion is in order. But of course this is not our only goal. Given how much we still stand to lose, treating any variable as off limits is not only contrary to our larger goals, but defies reason.
On a basic level, Koshmrl’s article is a story about a human, an elk, and two bears that lost their lives. Even more basic than that is the general function of the story—any story—which is to provide an account of how things are and which things matter. Why these losses occurred and what they mean is a matter of perspective. The trouble with perspectives, however, is that they are more-or-less reliable, fallible, and vulnerable to distortion. Ultimately, they are only as useful as they are committed to finding and articulating the truth, and when it comes to grizzlies and other controversial predators, the truth has never been more relative than now. And that is dangerous for them and for us.
Other writers have already suggested that the attack on Uptain may have been especially controversial because it occurred within the context of Wyoming’s recently foiled and regrettable attempt to hold a grizzly bear hunt. Apparently WYGF and the trophy hunting public believe that a bear hunt could have prevented an attack like this from occurring by creating a fear of humans in grizzly bears. Zach Strong with the NRDC had already identified the problem with this thinking* as early as March of this year, and so has at least one other study**. To the extent that Hovinga and Thompson’s comments portray the bear that killed Uptain as aberrant, they seem not to be in possession of this knowledge. More importantly, I worry that their comments may fuel people’s animosity toward predators.
In predator world, nothing commands more attention than the death of a grizzly bear, especially when it’s a sow with offspring. Whether this is because their low reproductive rate, or because of their iconic, spiritual, symbolic, or ecological significance, when a grizzly is killed, it’s a big deal, no matter who pulled the trigger. Consequently, when WYGF or any other agency tasked with the management of wildlife decides to “remove” a sow with offspring from the ecosystem, the public rightly expects and deserves a well-reasoned explanation as to why. As wildlife experts, both Hovinga and Thompson surely have science backgrounds, and yet their comments are anything but scientific. Instead they reinforce the bear-as-aberration narrative. In one of the earliest articles about the attack, Hovinga described the bear’s behavior as “abnormal.” In Koshmrl’s most recent piece, Thompson echoes this view, first by describing the sow’s behavior as “completely different, dangerous behavior,” and second by saying that “A female with a yearling attacking in this manner, I’ve never dealt with that.”
Koshmrl had an opportunity—a responsibility—to qualify these remarks or at least offer an alternative perspective. Instead, he allowed Hovinga and Thompson’s unfounded remarks to go unchallenged. He writes: “Even for grizzlies, which are inherently protective and aggressive animals, this is unusual behavior.” Given all the emphasis placed on this bear’s unusual behavior, what had the bear done that was so off-kilter? Was the bear rabid? Frothing at the mouth? Had it charged Uptain and Chubon on two legs? How exactly did the bear behave that so defied these experts’ expectations? I’ve read Koshmrl’s article a dozen times and the only answer I can come up with is Nothing.
Despite Hovinga and Thompson’s commitment to the view that this bear behaved unusually, I can’t find a single detail in the article that necessarily supports their conclusion.
In fact, the details in Koshmerl’s articles support just the opposite conclusion, which is that this bear wasn’t doing anything other than acting like a bear. According to the article, when Uptain and Chubon found the elk carcass a day after it had been shot, there were no obvious signs of bear activity, which Uptain, Chubon, and later Hovinga interpreted to mean that the bear was not defending the carcass when she attacked. This detail is the linchpin for Hovinga and Thompson’s belief that the sow acted abnormally because it suggests that the sow was unprovoked. Maybe she wasn’t defending the kill, but does that necessarily mean her behavior is inexplicable? I don’t think so for at least three reasons.
In another early article Hovinga was quoted as saying that “The behavior exhibited by these bears is abnormal behavior for a family group. It’s not typically how we would see family groups behave.” But just a few sentences later Hovinga added that “a mother will get aggressive if she feels there is a threat to her cubs.” Is it possible that Koshmrl was wrong when he wrote that “the cub was nearby . . . but wasn’t being threatened”? Although I am unsure as to how he or anyone else could make this determination, common sense tells me that as long as mother and cub remain together, there is a high probability that the mother will act aggressively toward perceived threats. This, in my view, suggests clear provocation.
Another explanation for why the sow initiated the attack is that she was not defending but rather competing for the carcass. It’s a verifiable fact that grizzlies often commandeer wolf kills. We also know that the scene of the elk’s death was a visceral and bloody mess. Who is to say that the sow and her cub didn’t just happen on the scene and, roused by the smell of blood and driven by hyperphagia, decide to take the kill? This happens all the time between grizzlies, wolves, and other animals. Why would this scenario play out any differently just because humans were involved? Again, common sense tells us it wouldn’t.
Lastly, the article offers one final reason, not for why the attack occurred, but why it may have escalated from a mauling to a fatality. According to Koshmrl, Chubon’s “last view of Uptain, which he relayed to investigators, was of the guide on his feet trying to fight off the sow.” A feeling both primal and sickening wells up in me when I imagine the terror Uptain must have felt as he fought for his life. Equally troubling is the likelihood that Uptain knew he had no chance against the bear but still felt (not thought) that fighting the bear was his only option. Doing anything else—lying belly down, covering the neck and head, and playing dead—would have required extraordinary resolve. Based on the advice of experts, however, dropping and covering is one’s best chance of surviving a grizzly attack. Fighting the bear is basically a death sentence.
I think I understand why neither Hovinga nor Thompson made reference to the possibility that these factors played a role in the attack and Uptain’s death. I have no doubt that they believed, in retrospect, that they were protecting human life by killing the sow and her cub, but after reading Koshmrl’s account, I get the feeling Hovinga and his posse jumped the gun and then made the case for removal post facto. Those bears were killed less than 48 hours after they were incriminated. Why the rush, especially when so little was known about the bears and the circumstances surrounding the attack? Only WYGF knows for sure, but based on Hovinga and Thompson’s own account (“We had guns up,” Hovinga was quoted as saying. “There was a question, ‘Do we take her?’ I said take her.”), the removal of those bears smacks of a drive-by or Western shootout, which is far from the thoughtful, well-reasoned explanation we should expect each and every time someone is attacked and/or the state decides to remove a grizzly bear from the ecosystem. In the absence of such an account, the public has no choice but to speculate, and that is not in anyone’s interest.
Koshmrl, Hovinga, and Thompson are right about one thing: We will never know exactly what happened on that mountain. But if the public gets it wrong based on their account of it, they have only themselves to thank.
Maximilian Werner is Assistant Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of five books, including the recent essay collection The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.