A campfire grizzly story

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Last week, in this famous newspaper, Editor Chris Peterson ran the “second most” terrifying story of a grizzly bear trapping mishap I can remember. It was the kind a reporter and his readers can never forget. That incident was all too real and there were pictures to prove it. The victim, veteran Game Warden Louis Kis, was badly injured and was lucky to have lived through it. I got chills while he was telling me about it 30 years ago.

During the over 60 years of covering Northwest Montana news, I have heard many grizzly bear yarns, but I’ve only heard one that was scarier that Louis’. Maybe that was the product of someone’s wildest imagination. However, it was too intriguing to casually toss away in the trash barrel of memory.

In the summer of 1999, a man called me from Glacier Park seriously requesting anonymity and then told this awesome yarn.

Biologists had set a big culvert style live-trap in a secluded spot, hoping to capture a troublesome grizzly. Following standard procedure, they checked the trap several times a day. On the third day, one of the biologists went to the trap alone and found a big, unhappy grizzly in there. He looked over the situation and decided he could handle the bear by himself, though that is not standard procedure. The plan was to tranquilize the captive, fit it with a radio collar, then release him with the “adverse conditioning” of a noisy cracker-shell sendoff.

To make this yarn more personal, let’s call our biologist Fargo.

Fargo attached a loaded syringe to the darting pole and jabbed the griz in the rear, which made the startled bear switch ends in a hurry. Pretty soon, the captive is snoring away, so Fargo decides to recover the dart. He slid the door open and crawled in. Bad move! He barely got inside and the heavy metal door slammed shut behind him. Now Fargo is trapped with a tranquilized bear and can’t get out. Those doors can only be opened from the outside. The tranquilizer was left outside.

Fargo checked for other equipment. His cell phone was in the truck with the radio. No chance to call for assistance. He tried to reach outside through the bars and release the catch to raise the door, but that cannot be done. He tried hollering in the thousand-to-one chance someone was wandering near that isolated spot. No luck.

After a time, the big griz gives a low growl, like he may be coming out of the drug. Fargo was desperate now. He was in a cramped cage with a big grizzly that is going to be in a nasty mood when it wakes up. Fargo started searching through his pants and found a pocketknife. The blade was medium-sized and not razor sharp, but he decided “THIS IS HIS ONLY CHANCE.”

It takes a torturous ten or fifteen minutes to cut through the thick hide on the bear’s throat, but at last it was done and Fargo went to hacking through the tissue covering the jugular vein.

The bear is becoming more restless, moving its head and legs, making Fargo’s task more scary and difficult, but fear-driven adrenaline gives inspired strength.

When the frightening job was done, there was only silence and Fargo could but sit with a dying companion in an atmosphere not smelling of roses. He knew, sooner or later, someone would come checking on his whereabouts. The wait gave him several hours of maddening mental suffering over what a foolish thing he had done.

My anonymous narrator ended his chilling story by saying, “the word here is high Federal Wildlife authorities are doing their utmost to bury all details of this incident, but maybe you can dig out the facts.”

My curious phone query to Park Headquarters resulted in a statement that they, too, had heard this wild story, but they vehemently assured me such a weird thing did not occur in Glacier.

If it happened, maybe it was someplace else, perhaps around Yellowstone, Canada, or Alaska. This we do understand, State and Federal biologists are the only ones into trapping grizzly bears.

We’ll never know.

G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.

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