On June 21, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officially closed the book on its investigation of a grizzly bear attack in the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby. The incident, which occurred around 11 a.m. on May 17, left a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services field assistant with serious injuries and triggered an immediate response by FWP’s Wildlife Human Attack Response Team (WHART) in Region 1. A GoFundMe campaign has since raised more than $45,000 to help the victim, Amber Kornak, who suffered two skull fractures and multiple lacerations to her head, neck and back.
According to Wayne Kasworm, team leader for FWS’ Grizzly Bear Recovery Program in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, Kornak is recuperating and “doing fine.”
“It’s probably going to take a little while yet before she can return to work,” Kasworm says. “If she wants to, there is a job waiting for her here.”
FWP’s announcement of the investigation’s completion did not address the two agencies’ plans for the bear, which fled the scene after Kornak deployed her bear spray. Both confirmed to the Indy that the bear will not be removed from the population.
“If it’s a predatory attack and it appears that a bear reacted aggressively to a human in a way that was more predatory than surprise defensive, then our WHART team would respond differently and most likely seek out that bear and most likely remove that bear, because we don’t tolerate that behavior with wildlife,” says FWP Region 1 spokesperson Dillon Tabish. “But that was not the case.”
In this instance, Tabish says, the grizzly displayed what the agencies refer to as “surprise defensive” behavior. Kornak was collecting grizzly hair samples from rub trees when the attack occurred. According to the WHART team’s investigation, neither Kornak nor the bear heard each other until they were within roughly 12 feet of each other, likely due to thick vegetation and noise from a nearby creek running at high flow. The bear attacked Kornak, but Tabish says the fact that it left after being sprayed suggests the behavior was not predatory.
While flight is one indicator of a bear’s behavior, it’s not the only factor investigators take into account when deciding on post-attack actions. The WHART team acts almost like a “criminal investigative team,” Tabish says, collecting evidence from the scene, interviewing involved parties and conducting follow-up site reviews. WHART teams are typically composed of wardens, bear-management specialists and other biologists. In the case of federally protected species like grizzlies, investigations include consultation with FWS officials. The bear’s age and sex, location, prior conflicts, food habituation and the actions taken by humans all play a role in deciding whether lethal removal is warranted.
“We attempt to give adult females — reproductive females or young females — as much of a chance as possible, depending on the severity of the event,” Kasworm says. “Males, depending upon the age of the animal and the offense involved, may get less than three strikes … before they are removed.”
FWP administrative rules contain broad language on how grizzlies are dealt with following human conflicts or livestock depredation. Tabish says the policy is designed to give wildlife managers flexibility to judge appropriate responses on a case-by-case basis.
The grizzly involved in the May attack was a 24-year-old male well known to researchers, having been caught and fitted with an ear tag transmitter in 2005. That transmitter gave FWS just a few months of telemetry data before it fell off, Kasworm says. But hair samples collected from rub trees over the past 13 years have given the agency a good sense of his home range, which Kasworm estimates at roughly 500 square miles. Genetic data has also led FWS to conclude that the bear was not relocated to the Cabinet-Yaak as part of the agency’s population augmentation program, but is one of the original denizens of the ecosystem, if not the sole one left.
“He is an animal that has been very successful at breeding,” Kasworm adds, “and in terms of our family tree, he has a genetic relationship to an awful lot of the bears that are there now.”
Asked whether the size of the ecosystem’s population — estimated at about 55 bears divided more or less evenly between the Cabinet Mountains and the Yaak Valley — was a factor in the recent post-attack decision, Tabish and Kasworm both say it would not have changed the outcome had the attack been deemed predatory.
“In small populations where we’re not dealing with very many bears and we’re working pretty hard to recover these populations, I think we would take that into account as much as we could,” Kasworm says. “However, we’re not going to be compromising human safety with that determination.”