Increasing human-bear encounters have led Wyoming’s governor to call for a return to grizzly bear hunting. When one man used a handgun to deter a grizzly, he paid for it in flesh.
In 2019, nearly 500 Americans died from unintentional firearm injuries — and that’s without getting a grizzly bear involved.
But 65-year-old Lee Francis probably wasn’t thinking about statistics from the Centers for Disease Control when he found himself confronted by a Wyoming grizzly on Friday.
Francis was hunting with his son in the Rock Creek area of the Sawtooth Mountains when a grizzly bear attacked him, according to an Oct. 22 news release from the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office.
Francis drew his handgun and fired several rounds to scare off the bear. However, one of the rounds struck him in the lower leg, officials said.
Francis received treatment for his injuries, and wildlife officials told police they are searching for the bear. But the incident serves to underscore one important bear deterrence lesson: firing a gun in a grizzly bear encounter is rarely the right decision.
After Francis shot himself, his son activated his SOS device to get help, according to the news release. Then, he provided first aid to help control his father’s bleeding. With darkness approaching, they worked out a plan with emergency responders through the SOS device.
Francis’ son, unnamed in the news release, got his father on a horse and led him toward nearby Water Dog Lake. Search and rescue workers caught up with the pair at about 9:20 p.m. and administered first aid. They extracted Francis by UTV to Flying A Ranch, the news release said, and then flew him via helicopter to the University of Utah Hospital for treatment.
A search and rescue official also accompanied Lee’s son and horses back to the trailhead.
Renewed Debate Over Grizzly Bears
Wyoming game wardens have begun an investigation and will try to locate the grizzly bear that Francis told police attacked him.
Western Wyoming officials said the incident marks the second grizzly bear attack in the area this month. On Oct. 15, a grizzly attacked two college wrestlers outside the town of Cody.
Such incidents have become more common in Wyoming, where grizzly bears have made a comeback, especially around Yellowstone National Park. As a result, Wyoming leaders have asked the federal government to remove grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act. If approved, the bears could once again become legal game animals.
In the 20th century, grizzly bears were hunted nearly to extinction. Giving the bears federal protection in 1975 allowed them to bounce back, and now they once again have a stable population.
“The population numbers are growing,” Andrea Zaccardi, Senior Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told USA Today. “But there’s no scientific reason to hunt grizzly bears now.”
Some in the private sector, including hunting guides like British Columbia’s Love Bros. and Lee, have taken their government to task over grizzly bear protections that stand on scientifically unstable foundations.
Incident Legality, Outlook, and Best Deterrence Practices
Wildlife officials continue to recommend bear spray as the preferred method of dealing with grizzly bears. According to the National Park Service, it’s actually more effective than firearms for defending yourself in a bear attack. Not only that, but it’s also a better move from a legal standpoint.
It’s unclear whether Francis hit the grizzly with any of his shots. If the authorities do locate the bear and find it injured from the incident, Francis could face legal repercussions unless he’s able to provide compelling evidence that the bear attacked him. That’s because it’s only legal to harm the federally protected bears if they attack you.
If you shoot and kill a grizzly bear, you need to report the incident to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) within 5 days along with legal proof that you acted in self-defense.
If you’re in an area where an encounter is possible, using bear spray can save lives — both human and ursine. To learn more, check out this handy guide about bear spray. It’s harmless to bears and a lot less dangerous than a handgun.