Bill Sniffin: Scary Times At The Bottom Of The Wild Food Chain

in Column/Bill Sniffin

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By Bill Sniffin, columnist

Many decades ago, when my brother Ron and I would go big-game hunting, it was comforting to know that we were at the top of the food chain. 

We had powerful rifles and we knew that no creature out there could cause us serious harm.

Our anti-hunter acquaintances always pointed out the unfairness of “hunting,” asking what would we do if the other side could hunt us?

Sometime in the 1980s, all this changed. 

From that time on, grizzly bears have been encouraged to live all over Western Wyoming. It was a game-changer. Human hunters now could be viewed as fair game. The playing field was leveled. 

This fair fight stuff is now everyday news. 

Two gruesome cases of Wyoming hunters being mauled have been reported recently and it is easy to predict that during hunting season such events might happen as frequently as on a weekly basis. 

It is beyond my imagination to experience what a bow hunter might feel like. He or she is out there being “stealthy” and sneaking around when you come upon a grizzly bear. It sees you as prey. As fresh meat. 

Now folks, that is what could be called a fair fight. By the true definition of hunting, the big deal is that you have as much to lose as your adversary has to lose. 

For me, I was first exposed to this fair fight business on a big horn Sheep hunt outside of Dubois in 1991. My brother-in-law Dan Kinneman was an outfitter and we were hunting near Double Cabin. This is a spectacular place but often, I was too wary to appreciate the wonderful scenery. Dan would send me out in the dark early in the morning to fetch the horses. This was griz country and there was lots of bear scat all around us. He said to make noise while I was walking out there in the dark trying to find the horses. I was armed with some very weak bear spray.

Much like a terrified cartoon character whistling to himself as he walks through a cemetery at night, I was expecting at any second to be devoured by a monster grizzly bear. 

My family never liked eating wild meat and my short career as a big game hunter ended soon after that. 

I have always been very pro-hunting but the risk-reward aspect of the event has taken a turn that deeply stimulates my caution gene. Having never been a reckless type, the decision to do photo safaris instead of hunting safaris was easy to come to. 

What Does It Feel Like?

So, what does it feel like to be attacked by a Grizzly? 

Northwest College Wrestler Kendall Cummings could feel the grizzly bear’s jaws tearing through flesh down to his skull, but the adrenaline coursing through his body made it a painless sensation. 

“I could hear when his teeth would hit my skull, I could feel when he’d bite down on my bones and they’d kind of crunch,” Cummings told Cowboy State Daily reporter Leo Wolfson.

Cummings and his wrestling teammate in Powell, Brady Lowry, were attacked by a grizzly bear outside Cody. They survived but suffered serious injuries from the angry bruin.

The bear charged at Cummings with surprising speed, immediately knocking him to the ground. After a short while in the grip of jaws, the bear left him. Cummings’ thoughts were not on his own injuries, but rather that the bear would attack Lowry again. It was when he stood up to look for his teammate that the bear attacked again, he told Wolfson.

The bear eventually stopped its attack, and Cummings lay still for a few minutes after, hoping to avoid a third encounter.

When it was clear the grizzly had gone, Cummings said he got up and rejoined Lowry. The bloodied men then began their long trek down the mountain, 5 miles away from the Bobcat-Houlihan Trailhead where they started their hike. 

‘I Must Have Startled Him’

As reported two weeks ago, James Davis and a friend, Jon Irish, agreed to go retrieve a deer that another member of their party, Dean Brown, had killed the day before. It was about a half-mile from their camp.

Knowing that they were in grizzly country, Brown had intended to pack the buck’s carcass out the same day he shot it. However, the hunters ran out of time packing an elk and a deer, according to a story by Mark Heinz in Cowboy State Daily. 

Davis was moving through some nasty deadfall and was just rounding a lone-standing tree when he saw a huge grizzly coming for him.

“We later surmised that the bear had already eaten the deer and was bedded down by the time we got there,” Davis said. “I must have startled him when I came around that tree. He charged because of that, not because of the food.”

“All of this was happening so fast I can’t really tell you how long it took,” Davis said, describing the attack. 

“I yelled ‘bear!’ back at Jon about five times,” he said. “I was just a little way up over the hill, so he couldn’t see me.”

“It’s a good thing I was able to get back behind that one lone-standing tree,” he said. “If I had taken the full force of that charge head-on in the deadfall, it would have been bad. It probably would have broken my back or my neck.”

He managed to put the muzzle of his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle “into the fur” of the bear and fire a shot before dropping into a defensive position. 

The bear bit Davis’ left wrist, barely missing a large artery. Then it sank its teeth into his right shoulder and lifted him up. “He didn’t shake me,” Davis said. “The puncture wounds were ‘in-and-out’ holes. He didn’t rip anything.”

“I still have a depression from one of the puncture wounds near my clavicle that you could put your finger into,” he said. 

The final wound Davis suffered was when the bear “put his paw on my back and then pushed off as he turned to move down the hill. His claws raked my back.”

‘Those Things Are Hard To Kill’

As the bear moved down the hill, Irish shot at it twice with his 7mm magnum rifle. He made at least one solid hit, probably through the bruin’s shoulder. The bear went down for a little while, but then got back up and continued down the hill. The men lost sight of it as it went into a small grove of trees. 

“Those things are hard to kill,” Davis said. “Everybody asks me what sidearm to carry in bear county, but I tell them to get a big can of bear spray. I shot it point-blank with a .300 magnum and Jon shot it at least once, and it still kept going.”

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