This story originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Montana Quarterly.
Deb Freele woke with a flitter of uneasiness. Something wasn’t right.
Then, before she could even open her eyes, the bear chomped into her upper left arm. It didn’t chew. It didn’t shake its head. It didn’t growl. It just kept pushing her into the ground, squeezing its jaws ever tighter, carving a furrow of flesh you could roll a golf ball through. She heard something crack. It was loud.
She thought it was a bone breaking. Later, she would learn the grizzly had snapped off a tooth.
“It was like a vise,” she said of the grizzly’s grip. “Getting tighter and tighter and tighter.”
Freele screamed. She called out for help. “It’s a bear,” she yelled. “I’m being attacked by a bear.”
But no help came, not for a long time. It was July 28, 2010, and she was alone in her one-man tent, her 13th night in the Soda Butte Campground a few miles from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Her husband was in another tent about 40 feet away. But he’d been at the rum pretty hard that night and didn’t hear a thing.
Yelling wasn’t working, so Freele decided to play dead. The bear loosened its grip, only to snap down again on her lower arm, squeezing with its teeth and jaws and pushing, pushing down. She heard another snap. This time, it was a bone.
She wondered: “Does it think it has me by the neck? This thing thinks it’s killing me.”
Pinned on her side, she couldn’t reach the bear pepper spray beside her in the tent. She couldn’t strike out. She decided to go limp, thinking that, if the bear tried to roll her over, she’d have a chance to grab the pepper spray.
For maybe a minute, she suffered in near silence. She could see stars overhead and she could hear the bear’s heavy breath, with blood or saliva gurgling in its throat.
Then she heard sounds from the next campsite. Voices in a tent. Feet scurrying to a vehicle. Doors slamming and an engine starting. Headlights flashed across her husband’s silent tent.
And the bear went away.
“It dropped me and I didn’t move an eyelash,” Freele, 58, told me later from her home in London, Ontario. “I was afraid it would pounce on me.”
The car from the neighboring campsite stopped and a window opened. “We’re getting help,” somebody said. The car contained a family with young children. Too terrified to leave the car, they drove around the campsite’s upper loop, honking the horn and trying to rouse somebody. Most people ignored them, suspecting drunks or hooligans, likely.
And Freele lay there alone, in the dark, her tent demolished, her arm shredded like a chicken wing, knowing not where that bear had gone. She took the safety off her bear spray and sat partway up. It would be 20 minutes before the neighbors came back with help.
Freele didn’t know it at the time, but she wasn’t the bear’s first victim. A few minutes earlier, at about 2 a.m. and a couple hundred yards upstream, the grizzly had attacked another tent. Though the tent contained two people and a dog, the bear moved it a few feet before biting through the fabric and sinking its teeth into the leg of Ronald Singer, a 21-year-old former high school wrestler who came up swinging while his girlfriend began to scream. The sharp blows and the racket helped the bear change its mind and it didn’t stick around. Neither did Singer. His girlfriend’s parents drove him to Cooke City, looking for medical help. Freele saw them drive by her camp, but they didn’t stop, probably didn’t even know the bear had struck again.
After these two attacks, the grizzly — a scrawny animal supporting three yearling cubs — kept moving downstream until she hit the camp of Kevin Kammer, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. All but three of the Soda Butte Campground’s 27 sites contained campers that night, most of them in tents. Like Freele’s site and Singer’s, Kammer’s site was a little isolated, with only one neighbor. And Kammer’s site, number 26, was one of the most isolated. The closest camp stood 60 yards away, it was very dark and a nearby creek masked noises. Nobody saw or heard a thing.
And nobody found his body until a couple hours later, after campers had raised the alarm and a Park Count Sheriff’s deputy, with a spotlight and a loudspeaker, began rousting campers, ordering them to leave. He found a ghastly scene. The bear had pulled Kammer from his tent by the head and shoulders and he bled to death within four feet of the tent, investigators determined. Then she pulled his body another 10 yards, and that’s where the deputy found him, his torso partially consumed by mother and cubs.
By that time, game wardens, deputies, people from the Forest Service and the National Park Service, most of them armed, had sent the groggy campers on their way, most of them leaving their gear on the ground for the night. Dawn dragged its heels that morning.
“What made her cross that line that night will haunt me forever,” Kevin Frey told me. He is a bear management specialist in the Yellowstone area for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. I’ve interviewed him many times in 20 years of reporting about Yellowstone and relied on him as a source for my book, “Mark of the Grizzly, True Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned.” I’ve learned to count on him for honest, reliable information. Like me, he cares about grizzly bears and wild country. He finds no joy in it when he has to kill a bear.
And he works really hard. In normal years, he works with landowners to help bearproof their properties and, during hunting seasons, he crawls through dense brush, looking for a grizzly bear wounded by a surprised hunter. Last year, when a late spring meant poor crops of natural food and far-ranging bears, he worked well over two months without a day off, trying to solve problems.
He has investigated dozens of bear attacks over the years. He’s trapped and handled scores of bears, tried to educate thousands of people about living safely in bear country. He said he’s never seen an attack like this one. Analyze most grizzly attacks, and you’ll find some sort of explanation: a surprise encounter: a hunter bounces one out of a daybed, a photographer pushes his luck, a hapless hiker winds up between the bear and its cubs, or between the bear and a carcass it is protecting, or somebody feeds the bear, teaching it to see humans as a source of food.
But none of that happened in this case. Frey’s report, compiled in the weeks after the attack, pieced together what happened. But it couldn’t tell us why.
“There is no clear explanation for the aggressive, predatory behavior,” the report says.
It does rule out a number of factors. At 220 pounds, the bear was small, but not abnormally so. The cubs were undersized, too. But they were not starving. The mother carried an average load of parasites. She probably had lived near the campground for all of her life, at least 10 years. She knew where it was, had seen it and smelled it and mostly shunned it.
She was not rabid. She was not in the habit of eating garbage, or horse feed or bird seed or somebody’s lunch. Relatively new technology means scientists can identify, through analysis of the isotopes in hair, the main ingredients of a bear’s diet for the previous two years. She had lived almost exclusively on vegetation, unlike most of the Yellowstone area’s meat-eating bears. Sometime in the previous couple of weeks, she’d been eating meat, though not much of it. She’d been a vegetarian, mostly.
None of the people attacked that night had any food or other attractants in their tents to tempt a bear’s sensitive nose. Everybody in the campground had secured all their food and utensils in their vehicles or the bearproof boxes at each campsite.
The bear had never been trapped or tranquilized and she had no history of aggression toward people. The only known encounter had come a few days earlier when a woman, jogging on the highway near the park entrance, surprised the bear family along the road. The startled mother offered a bluff charge, then backed off when the jogger stopped running and started yelling at her, which is typical behavior. She was being protective, not predatory.
If anybody in the Cooke City area had problems with grizzlies grabbing garbage or other food that summer, they didn’t report it.
Rumors circulated that a local photographer had been feeding the bears, which could have taught them to associate humans with food. Investigators chased leads but could find no evidence of such bear baiting. And the hair analysis ruled out any significant amount of human or livestock food.
While it took a while to sort out these details, the evidence that Frey and Warden Captain Sam Sheppard found on the ground made for a clear case, one as unusual as it was grim: this grizzly bear was treating people like food, like prey. And for that, she had to die. Anybody who pays any attention in grizzly country knows you should never, ever, give a bear a food reward. Don’t do it on purpose. Don’t let it happen accidentally. It just teaches them to look for more of the same. And this bear and her cubs had found a food reward in a person they killed.
By 6 p.m. on July 28, about 16 hours after Kammer’s death, the bear had returned to his camp, where Frey had draped the rain fly from Kammer’s tent over a culvert trap just six feet from where the father of four had died. She climbed in the steel tube, looking for more food, and the door slammed shut behind her. Within another 12 hours, Frey had captured all three cubs, too.
While Frey’s team already knew this had been a predatory attack, an effort to make a meal of people, they waited for definitive proof that they had the right bear. The next day, some deft work by the crime lab in neighboring Wyoming made sure Frey and his crew had what they needed: DNA from hairs gathered at the attack matched DNA from the bear in the trap. Plus, the snapped tooth in Freele’s tent matched a broken canine on the mother bear. Frey and Sheppard had the right bear.
Less than two hours later, a plunger dropped on a big hypodermic and the mother bear nodded into death. Her cubs will spend their life in a Billings zoo.
Frey and Sheppard said they have no regrets about the decision to put the mother bear down. Bears who learn to rely on things like garbage and pet food cause problems enough. A bear that has killed and eaten a person cannot be tolerated.
A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
News of the attacks spread quickly around the world. Media in Europe, China and Australia covered it. For some reason, lots of people felt more sympathy for the bear than for the man she killed. Some grew livid. Hundreds of emails poured into FWP offices, enough to clog servers. Some blamed Kammer for being there. Others put on a stupefying display of ignorance and fantasy.
“The bear had been to the area before the campers were there and when she noticed a strange presence she immediately went into survival mode, doing what was necessary to ensure the protection of her cubs,” wrote Erica Allen, who then offered to lock herself in a room with the bear to prove “it won’t purposely kill me.”
“What a bunch of morons!!!!,” wrote Robert Fairbanks. “The mother bear and cubs were simply looking for food in their natural habitat.”
“I will always think of Montana as a backward, anti-animal state who will murder a mother bear, orphan her three cubs because stupid arrogant people have to holiday in the wilderness,” wrote Carolyn Croll.
“You will burn in hell for murdering God’s beloved creations,” wrote Rob Fulsom.
In the anonymity of the blogosphere, things got even worse. People even took shots at Kammer in the comments section of an online obituary.
Investigators saw it differently.
“That man deserves nothing but respect and sympathy,” Sheppard said of Kammer.
I agree with him.
Kammer, 48, had taken a break from a career as a medical technologist to be a stay-at-home dad to his four kids, the youngest just nine and the oldest 19. Two of them attended a Christian school. His family chose not to comment for this story, but news accounts and comments from friends provide at least a partial picture: dedicated to his family, he was the kind of dad who showed up at school board meetings when a decision affected his kids. Affable and friendly, when coworkers had a bad day, they could count on him to elicit a laugh. He liked fishing and camping and kayaking, fixing up the house and relaxing in the hot tub.
His camp was clean. His food was properly stored. He wasn’t in the wilderness, he was in a campground, a few feet from his car, a place with toilets and picnic tables and improved roads. Though surrounded by wild country, this place was built for people. He did nothing wrong. Yet doofuses on the Internet, cloaked in anonymity, felt free to criticize him.
Freele said she was in the ambulance on the way to a hospital in Cody, Wyoming, when she learned there had been more attacks, that a man had died. Until that point, she’d been feeling she was the unlucky one. She knew she was in bear country and had done everything right. She never cooked on the fire pit, not wanting to leave any food residue in there. She kept her campstove and food locked away. She poured her dishwater in the outhouse and even brushed her teeth there, to keep attractive odors out of her camp. She didn’t use any lotions and she changed her clothes before going to bed. She kept her bear spray handy and if she found fresh bear sign on her daily fishing trips, she went somewhere else. She followed all the rules and somehow, the bear chose her tent that night. She has no doubt it was trying to make a meal of her.
Anonymous commenters on the Internet attacked her, too.
“That bothered me,” she told me, but not as much as the knowledge that Kammer died nearby.
She wonders, now, if she couldn’t have helped. She hopes he didn’t suffer. She worries about his family. She wonders if she couldn’t have tried harder to reach her bear pepper spray, if she couldn’t have maybe chased the grizzly away, into the woods, away from people.
“Survivor’s guilt, I guess,” is the way she summed it up.
THE INCREDIBLE RARITY
Somebody gets nailed in grizzly country every year. Almost always, they survive these attacks by animals that can take down a bull elk or an Angus steer, though the injuries can be gruesome. This, more than anything, refutes the myth that grizzlies are manhunters that lust for human flesh. If they wanted to kill us, they could do it in short order.
Attacks like the ones at the Soda Butte Campground remain incredibly rare. The last time anything similar happened in greater Yellowstone was in 1984, when Britta Fredenhagen, of Basel, Switzerland, died in the park’s remote Pelican Valley. Like Kammer, she had kept a clean camp and obeyed the rules, but a bear dragged her from her tent and ate much of her body anyway.
“Bears very rarely exhibit that kind of behavior,” Sheppard said. “But every one of them is capable of it.”
And that’s why the official response at Soda Butte was swift and immediate. Bear managers don’t want to give bears a chance to repeat that kind of thing. Cynics respond that fear of lawsuits drives such decisions. I don’t think it’s that simple.
“There’s a need to keep the community safe,” Sheppard said. “We couldn’t put a bear out there that we knew had cost somebody their life.”
Not everybody buys that reasoning, as witnessed by the outpouring of invective over the death of the Soda Butte bear. Some people argue that killing an innocent man in a campground should not warrant a death sentence for a bear.
What these people fail to realize is that killing that bear might have saved other bears. Too often, hunters and hikers kill bears that seem threatening. In 2010, people killed at least 49 grizzlies in and near Yellowstone. That’s nearly a record number (the record occurred in 2008) and at least 18 of those deaths remained “under investigation” by the end of the year. If the Soda Butte grizzly had been released, how many more bears would be killed by people convinced that every bear is that maneater?
Grizzly — and I count myself among them — deserve to squirm over the events at Soda Butte Campground. Two people suffered serious injuries and a man died. None of them did anything wrong. These weren’t garbage bears. It wasn’t a surprise encounter. It was a deadly, predatory attack.
As we move on with the seemingly interminable disputes over Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies, as we argue over which places and under which conditions the growing population of grizzlies should roam, as we contemplate mathematical models and political theories and a raft of other abstractions, let’s keep this in mind: Kevin Kammer was a real person with a real family. He’s gone now. And we don’t know why.
That’s not an abstraction.
It’s as real as it gets.
To see what this story looked like in print, click this link.