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MT - Hunter mauled by grizzly bear identified

November 01, 2007

 By SCOTT McMILLION, Chronicle Staff Writer

The man severely mauled in a bear attack near Corwin Springs was identified Wednesday as Virgil Massey, 52, of Barstow, Calif.

Massey, who told guides his extensive facial injuries came in one swipe of the bear's paw, was hunting in the timber above the Yellowstone River when he was attacked at about 9 a.m. Tuesday, likely after surprising the bruin.

He has been transported to a hospital in Salt Lake City, according to his outfitter, Edwin Johnson.

Massey is the fifth hunter attacked in southern Park County since September, though one attack resulted in no human injuries. The other attacking bears were all identified as grizzlies, although it isn't clear at this point what species of bear attacked Massey.

While five attacks and four injuries seem like a lot in two months, those figures are actually within the yearly average for the Greater Yellowstone area, according to Chuck Schwartz, head of the Bozeman-based Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.

"If you go back and look at the statistics, we have an average of about four" injurious encounters annually in recent years, he said. "We're on the high end, but we're not outside the variations.

"I think the only thing that is unusual is that they've all occurred in that one area."

So far this year, six people have been injured by bear attacks in this
region: the four in Park County; one involving Bozeman photographer Jim Cole inside Yellowstone National Park in May; and one in Idaho when a man surprised a grizzly bear feeding on a moose carcass near the man's home last spring.

Of those six injured, four were hunters. Schwartz said studies of radio-collared grizzlies have shown they are attracted to hunting areas in the fall, not because they're looking for people, but because they're looking for gut piles and wounded prey.

"They're moving to a good food source," he said. "Over the years, they have learned where these hunting areas are and they go there."

Plus, grizzly bear populations have grown.

When grizzlies were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, officials estimated the Yellowstone-area population at about 200, Schwartz said.

The population is now estimated at a minimum of 600.

"There are three times as many bears so there is three times the chance you're going to encounter one," he said.

Also, of the six injurious attacks this year, four came from females with cubs and one came from a male bear protecting a food source, a moose that had died near a rural home.

"Those are the two situations when we tell people to be careful" Schwarz said. "They're protective of their offspring and they're protective of their food."

The recent rash of attacks in Park County could be related to the bumper crop of apples along the Yellowstone River, Kevin Frey, bear management specialist for FWP, said. Bears have been wandering there at night to eat apples, then moving into the forested hills during the daytime, where they've been running into hunters.

The whitebark pine nut crop, which often keeps bears in the high country when it is bounteous, is just average this year.

Massey, was about two miles from the river when he was attacked.

Johnson said he has seen bear scat in the area with lots of apples, and two miles is not far for a grizzly bear.

Grizzlies lost their federal protections earlier this year, and if that decision withstands a court fight, Montana officials say they want to have a limited hunting season on them.

Johnson said he likes that idea.

"There's just an awful lot of bears," he said. "We're going to have to start hunting them sometime, so they can educate these bears that the human scent is something they should be afraid of."

Schwartz said that kind of lesson might not spread far.

"The ones that are targets end up dead," he said. "There's no learning curve there."

He said a better option is for humans to be wary in bear country and carry bear spray.

Scott McMillion is at scottm@dailychronicle.com

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