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The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy

February 4, 2019

 

 

On January 22nd, Wyoming Game and Fish (WYGF) released its second official report on the tragic death of hunting guide Mark Uptain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  Mark was killed on September 14th, 2018, after being attacked by an adult sow grizzly and her year-and-a-half old male cub.  The first official report was filed by WYGF not quite a month after Uptain was killed.  As one might expect, because this report was released relatively early in the investigation, it was premature at best.  This most recent iteration, however, attempts to backfill many of the holes created by the first report as well as bolster at least some of WYGF’s original conclusions.  One of the report’s handful of reliable proofs is that the bears they “removed” were indeed the two bears involved in the attack, which was determined through the analysis of DNA evidence.  Although this determination may allay some concerns, it seems almost insignificant when compared to other, more troubling aspects of WYGF’s handling of the investigation.  Equally troubling is that no one in the mainstream press seems especially interested in asking WYGF some of the more baffling questions raised by their reports.  Case closed in fatal griz attack, one headline reads.  Despite what the headline would have us believe, this case is only just getting started.

 

As someone who has been following Mark Uptain’s story since it broke, I’ve read pretty much everything that has been published on the subject, including articles, official reports, and comment threads.  Not surprisingly, they represent a wide array of perspectives, theories, and ideas, most of which seek to make some sense of what, from the point of view of many, was a senseless tragedy.  But I also came across a number of ideas that do not serve this end, the most insidious of which is the “Monday quarterback” fallacy, or the notion that because we weren’t there we have no business speculating about what happened or second-guessing the decisions and actions of those involved.  This attempt to silence people who are, for the most part, just trying to understand what happened, sounds an awful lot like the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” mentality we hear so much about here in the West.  I for one am deeply suspicious of anyone who advises against asking questions; offering contrary, plausible explanations; and advancing different theories of what happened and why. 

 

I’ve seen this sort of thing before in my dealings with Wildlife Services, an agency that, despite its untouchable, tough guy image, is among the most ideologically and scientifically fragile agencies out there.  That is, because its practices cannot withstand critical scrutiny, the agency circles the wagons rather than engaging the publics they serve in open dialog.  No matter who promotes it, this lack of engagement only serves those whose conduct or actions may be most deserving of scrutiny, while simultaneously relegating the rest of us to a perpetual status quo, which is precisely what we must change if we hope to adapt to the changing landscape of the new West, one aspect of which is the greater presence of grizzly bears.  As I think is true with any tragedy, the key is to wrest every piece of meaning that we can from it so that, going forward, we can not only use that information to prevent conflict, but to correct, design, and implement more responsive policies and protocols for when conflicts do occur.  The alternative—obediently and unquestioningly relying on what the “experts” tell us even though serious missteps may have been made—is tantamount to aiding and abetting.  So far it does not appear that we can rely on WYGF to give a full account of their role in what happened on that mountain and the mainstream press’s coverage has done precious little to change that fact. 

 

However much it may seem otherwise, even the first responders who had the difficult task of investigating Mark’s death had to engage in at least some post hoc reconstruction.  Mark Uptain was the only person on the ground who could have told us what happened to him once his client Corey Chubon high-tailed it out of there.  Everyone else has to reconstruct what happened after-the-fact.  The authors of the WYGF report acknowledge this reality when, in the Details section of their document, they note that they’ve reconstructed the attack “as much as possible, given the information available, and [their report] does not include speculation about details not supported by evidence or the investigation.”  On the face of it, this excerpt seems perfectly reasonable if not expected.  But any time we engage in post hoc reconstruction we introduce the possibility of error and/or omission.  That is, we introduce the possibility of getting things wrong.  This may be the only reason we need for why, contrary to the wishes of some, speculation is sometimes a necessary and useful mechanism for guarding against oversight, blind spots, lazy thinking, or deliberate and outright attempts to manipulate or deceive. 

 

WYGF’s decision not to speculate is not a problem in itself, of course, but I find it odd that they would even mention having done something so basic to good investigative work.  In other words, why mention a given?  The irony is that here, and elsewhere in WYGF’s reporting, we are forced to speculate because the report leaves too many major questions unexplored and unanswered.  Perhaps they were attempting to assure us that protocols were followed and things were done by-the-book.  The trouble with reports is that they are made of words, and like any tool, words can betray us if we don’t know how to use them.  Often times in written communication the intended effect of a rhetorical decision is not the same as its actual effect.  So while WYGF may have intended to reassure readers that investigators did everything they could to save Uptain’s life and have nothing to hide, their “speculation” statement has just the opposite effect.  Why?  Because relying on the evidence is as basic to investigative work as sterilization is to surgery.  Far from reassuring me and thereby eliminating any subsequent need I might feel to question their conclusions, the comment draws even more attention to their conclusions and the evidence on which they are based. 

  

One conclusion that WYGF has advanced from the outset is that the sow was acting abnormally when it attacked Uptain.  This ridiculous idea, which flies in the face of common sense and serves no other purpose other than to malign the bears and place undue emphasis on their (rather than human) behavior, was again advanced in WYGF’s most recent report, and again the press, most notably The Jackson Hole Daily, made no effort to challenge it.  I have already addressed the problems with this thinking in an earlier article, but I think it’s worth returning to it for a moment, in part because, as was true the first time WYGF offered its bear-as-aberration theory, WYGF’s recent reporting actually offers evidence for precisely the opposite interpretation, which is that bear was behaving exactly as we would expect her to under the circumstances.  After ruling out the possibility that the sow attacked for predatory reasons, the report notes that grizzly bears “typically attack people for one of three defensive reasons,” including food guarding, protection of offspring, and personal space.  Apparently, in order for the attack to qualify as food guarding, the bear would have already had to have been in possession of the carcass when Uptain and Chubon approached.  But this interpretation relies on a very narrow definition of possession and guarding, one that wildlife managers, hunters, and anyone who enters grizzly bear country would be wise to broaden. 

 

According to the report, “the evidence suggests that the desire of the bears to feed on the elk carcass was the motivating factor in the incident.”  Although this statement is intended to provide an alternative explanation to the three “typical” reasons for why grizzlies attack humans, the curious use of the word desire actually suggests another, more nuanced way of interpreting and deepening our understanding of the sow’s behavior.  We know from the Attack Details section of the report that Uptain and Chubon “located the dead elk after following a large blood trail” almost a day after Chubon had wounded it.  This fact in itself is significant because it means that the scene was saturated with death cues long before the two men arrived.  And as we all know through our own experience, desire is not objectless.  One could argue, then, that the bear’s sense of possession started the moment she keyed into the odor of the dead elk. Each additional encounter with physical indicators of the elk’s death (most notably the large blood trail and “elk parts” that Uptain had dragged away from the carcass) increasingly realized the object of her desire, until finally she came up over the ridge, the carcass and the men came into view, and all hell broke loose.  It’s here that the sow’s instinctive defensive-aggressive protection of offspring and personal space likely came into play.  Perhaps more than any other document found in the report, the hand-drawing of the scene most clearly depicts how all these variables came together and almost certainly led to escalation and defensive attack.  And yet, WYGF, with the help of sympathetic news outlets, seems determined to advance the “aberrant bear” narrative, the effect of which is to imperil bears, endanger humans that venture into bear country, promote misunderstanding, and at the same time erode the public confidence in the agency. 

 

Although I disagree with WYGF’s characterization of the bear’s behavior as abnormal, no investigator worth his salt is going to hang his hat on a single piece of evidence.  It’s only when evidence for a particular conclusion starts piling up that a case is made.  I admit I’ve been troubled by WYGF’s handling of the Uptain investigation since The Jackson Hole Daily’s Mike Koshmrl originally reported on it.  After talking with Koshmrl out of concern for both humans and wildlife, I hoped that future reporting would be more critical and answer other, equally important questions raised by the investigation.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, those questions not only remain unanswered, but have become even more urgent now that WYGF seems intent on putting the Uptain tragedy behind them.  Oddly, one question that has not come up in the reporting may well be the most important question of all: Why did the search-and-rescue (SAR) team consisting of two SAR personnel and one game warden leave the scene before determining whether or not Mark Uptain was dead?  The report attempts to answer this question in a number of explicit and implicit ways, but if I were Mark Uptain or a member of his family, I would not be heartened or persuaded by a single one them.  The first piece of information (I won’t call it a reason) that may have informed, but by no means determined, the SAR team’s decision to leave before locating Uptain was Chubon’s belief that Uptain likely hadn’t survived the attack.  But one would have to be very cynical indeed to conclude that Chubon’s belief that Uptain was dead was a factor, which is why I mention it only in passing.  The second and third pieces of information, which I would call reasons, are found in one of the supplemental reports.  The report indicates that after extracting Chubon from the mountain, the SAR helicopter “needed to refuel and headed back to forward Ops [Operations].”  As a result, “Daylight ran out and IC [Incident Command] suspended the mission until the following day.”

 

For the record, I tried contacting two separate SAR Teams, one here in Utah and one in the Jackson Hole area, to ask for their thoughts on this information.  But I don’t think one has to be a trained SAR team member or game warden to see why this information would be alarming.  That is, wouldn’t one assume that the SAR helicopter would have never left the hangar without enough fuel to stay out as long as needed to complete the mission?  Although I was unable to reach anyone from SAR, I was able to ask former and longtime National Park Service employee Bob Jackson about this apparent misstep.  Jackson was a backcountry park ranger for Yellowstone National Park, and over the course of his 30-year career was both directly and indirectly involved with a number of SAR operations, including a handful of grizzly bear attacks.  “There is no way they had so little fuel they could not have at least landed and let a couple people out,” he told me.  “I have been around a fair number of helicopter operations in the Park. From these I know helicopters don’t go out on anything unless there is enough fuel to cover variables.”  Another obvious variable that the SAR team responding to the Uptain attack seems not to have prepared for was nightfall.  On this point, Jackson was even more emphatic:  “I never, ever heard of a Park Service case where somebody was left for the night when there were bear-human incidents.  They had to have had everything with them ready to spend the night.  Never do you leave the scene of something like this incident. They had no idea of whether the mauled victim was alive or dead.  You don't leave a possibly live human for a night of terror.” 

 

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 mswerner@gmail.com.

 

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