By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter
In those few moments of furious violence in the remote high country of the Gro Ventre mountains, Lee Francis knew his life hung in the balance between a grizzly’s teeth and claws and his trigger finger.
“He was probably less than 1 foot away from the muzzle of the pistol, and it was just ‘bam, bam, bam, bam!’ As fast as I could shoot,” Lee Francis, 65, told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday as he described tangling with grizzly late Friday in the Wyoming back country.
And even though he ended up shooting himself in the left foot during the frantic struggle, Francis said his 10 mm Glock ultimately tipped things in his favor.
He’s glad to have escaped a severe and quite possibly a fatal mauling from the grizzly he’d startled in its den.
“Although a pistol shot isn’t good either, it’s still been hurting me a lot,” he said, speaking over the phone as he continues to recover at his son’s house in Provo, Utah.
On Friday, Francis and his son, Josh Francis, had been hunting in the high country above timberline. They were hoping to find big mule deer bucks to fill hunting tags they’d drawn for deer hunt area 141.
Leaving his son perched on a good viewpoint to “glass” (use binoculars) for deer, he started back down to where they’d left their horses and mule right at the timberline.
“It was just kind of empty country, so I wasn’t looking down,” Francis said. “I was still looking up and across the canyon for deer.”
Suddenly, he ran right into what he recognized as a bear den.
“I ran into a fresh dig, I could see the fresh dirt right there,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, crap!’ I started backing away. And as I was backing away, I drew my pistol and put a round in the chamber.”
‘He Came On Full Blast’
Lee Francis has plenty of experience with bears. He and his son had already seen two grizzlies during their hunt. He’s also hunted black bears in the Lower 48 and brown bears in Alaska. He once killed a massive Alaska bruin with a bow.
So, he instantly recognized the muzzle of a mature grizzly coming out of the den.
“He came right at me, and he came on full blast,” the elder Francis said.
Counting the cartridge already in the chamber, he had 14 rounds loaded with 130 grain hard cast bullets in his Glock.
“I just remember shooting three or for times, right before he hit me,” he said. “Then I went down on my back.”
Lee Francis continued shooting while trying to kick the bear in the face. At some point, he accidently shot himself in the left foot. The bullet traveled up his leg and exited his calf.
Thinks He Might Have Killed The Bear
As quickly as it had started, the attack ended. The bear fled, disappearing over a rise. Lee Francis said he wasn’t bitten or clawed by the bear during the fight, but did suffer some bruising to his upper left leg.
Investigators who came to the scene later didn’t find any evidence that the bear had been wounded or killed, Wyoming Game and Fish Department large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson told Cowboy State Daily.
But it snowed overnight after the attack, Lee Francis said, so that might have covered up the bear’s blood or other evidence. He said that he’s reasonably sure the bear took several hits at nearly point-blank range.
Josh Francis came running as soon as he heard his father’s shots.
“Luckily, my son is pretty handy, so he was able to stop the bleeding and get a good field dressing on the wound,” the elder Francis said.
“If my son had not have been there, I probably would not have made it out,” he added. “I would have bled to death, or I would have frozen to death. Because even if I had been able to crawl back to my mule, I would not have been able to get up on the mule without help.”
The journey out was painful.
“Every time my leg twisted on the back of that mule, it hurt like hell,” Lee Francis said.
They finally reached a spot where they had enough cellular reception to call for help, but the excruciating journey wasn’t over yet.
“It was dark, and the wind was blowing really hard, and there was a storm coming in,” Lee Francis said. “There just wasn’t a way to safely fly a chopper in there.”
So, it took another three hours to reach a spot where rescuers could load Lee Francis into a UTV and drive him to waiting helicopter. He was flown to the University of Utah Hospital.
The Right Firearm And Ammunition
Lee Francis said his son plans to go back into the same area Friday, hoping to fill his buck tag.
“I don’t want him to go alone,” the elder Francis said. “If I wasn’t hurt, I’d go back in there with him.”
Whenever he does return to the back country, Lee Francis plans to keep carrying his Glock, loaded with hard cast bullets.
He recalls that last year when he and some family members were hunting black bears in Idaho, one of the men in their party tried to finish off a wounded bear with a Glock 10 mm that had been loaded with hollow points.
“Those hollow points can’t penetrate all of the thick hide, muscle and bone on a bear to reach the vital organs,” he said.
Hard cast bullets will punch through a bruin’s body, instead of rapidly expanding and expending their energy in massive, shallow wounds the way that hollow point bullets do, he said.
“Hollow points are meant for stopping people, not bears,” he said, adding that it was also fortunate for him that his weapon was loaded with hard cast bullets.
“A hit from a hollow point would have probably just exploded my whole foot,” he said.
He also said he favors the high-capacity, semi-automatic Glock over magnum revolvers.
“There isn’t as much muzzle rise with the recoil from the Glock,” he said. “And you have 14 or 15 shots.”
Lee Francis has sometimes also carried bear spray, and says there’s nothing wrong with it. But he’s not sure it would have worked in his attack.
“He was so close and came at me so fast, and the wind was blowing, so I don’t know how much of the spray would have hit him (the bear), he said. “And he was so determined, I don’t know if spray would have stopped him.”
Eager To Get Back To Work
Lee Francis underwent two surgeries at the Utah hospital, including one to insert a metal rod into his foot and lower leg. On Wednesday afternoon, he said his leg still hurt too much to drive home to Evanston, where he works as a dentist.
“I’m just going to stay here (at his son’s) and recuperate for a couple more days before driving home,” he said.
“They say I can’t return to work for six more weeks, but I’d like to be back to work in two weeks,” he added. “I can sit on a stool while I work if I have to.”