Woman recounts grizzly’s vicious bite as Montana officials test bear suspected of fatal attack

By Matthew Brown, AP
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Woman recounts bear attack as caught grizzly ID’d

COOKE CITY, Mont. — One of the survivors of a deadly grizzly bear attack said Thursday she realized her only hope was to play dead after feeling the bear’s jaw clamp onto her arm in the middle of the night.

Wildlife officials were testing the DNA of a bear captured at the site of the early Wednesday mauling to confirm it was the animal that also killed a Michigan man and hurt another camper near Yellowstone National Park, but they said they were confident they had caught the right animals.

“Something woke me up, and a split second later, I felt teeth grinding into my arm,” Deb Freele of London, Ontario, said from a Wyoming hospital. “I realized, at that split second, I was being attacked by a bear, but I couldn’t see it.

“It was behind me and I screamed. I couldn’t help it — it’s kind of like somebody else was screaming,” she told The Associated Press. “And then it bit me harder, and more. It got very aggressive and started to shake me.”

She kept screaming but then realized that if she didn’t do something, she was going to die.

“I decided at that point, the only other thing I knew to do was to play dead, and I just went totally limp, got very quiet, didn’t make a sound. And a few seconds later, the bear dropped me and walked away,” she said.

The bear believed to be responsible for the rampage at the Soda Butte Campground was lured into a trap fashioned from culvert pipe and pieces of the dead man’s tent. Wildlife officials left the 300- to 400-pound sow in place overnight to attract her young, and by Thursday morning two of her year-old offspring were in adjacent traps.

The third could be heard nearby through much of the day, calling out to its mother and eliciting heavy groans from the sow, which periodically rattled its steel cage.

The cub returned at about 8 p.m. Thursday and nosed around the trap for about a half hour. At one point, it climbed halfway into the trap and then backed out and vanished.

“Eventually he’ll get hungry and he’ll come back,” said Fish Wildlife and Parks spokeswoman Andrea Jones.

Montana wildlife officials identified the man killed as Kevin Kammer, 48, of Grand Rapids, Mich. The bear pulled Kammer out his tent and dragged him 25 feet to where his body was found, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.

Messages left Thursday for Kammer’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law in Michigan were not immediately returned.

Freele and the other victim, Ronald Singer, 21, of Alamosa, Colo., were hospitalized in Cody, Wyo. Singer was treated and released, and Freele was scheduled to have surgery Friday for bite wounds and a broken bone in her arm, said West Park Hospital spokesman Joel Hunt.

Singer and his mother, Luron Singer, did not immediately return e-mail messages from the AP. But Luron Singer told The Denver Post that her son, a former high school wrestler, had been camping with his girlfriend.

When he felt the bear biting his leg, he started punching the animal, she said. His girlfriend screamed, and the bear ran away.

“He is doing fine,” Luron Singer told the Post. “He went fishing today.”

News of the maulings set residents and tourists on edge in Cooke City, a Yellowstone gateway community tucked into the picturesque Absaroka Mountains. Many were carrying bear spray, a pepper-based deterrent more commonly seen in Yellowstone’s backcountry than on the city’s streets.

Pennsylvania tourist Sheila McBride said she bought a can of the spray Thursday morning after hearing news of the attacks. She and her husband had no plans to hike or camp but were driving through the park in a convertible and wanted to be prepared in case they were delayed in a remote area by any road construction.

“We’ve got it in the back where we can grab it real easy,” McBride said, pointing to her BMW. “If we’re stuck in the convertible and a bear is coming over the mountain, we want to be ready.”

Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Capt. Sam Sheppard said he was confident the killer bear was the one they had captured because it came back to the site of the rampage, which started around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Sheppard said it was a highly unusual predatory attack, with campers in three different tents mauled as they slept.

Freele said she couldn’t understand why the bear attacked her, because she posed no threat.

“If it was something that I had done — if I had walked into a female with cubs, and startled her, and she attacked me — I can understand that,” she said. “She was hunting us, with the intention of killing us and eating us.”

Officials have said the bear will be killed if DNA evidence confirms it was the same one that attacked the victims. Aasheim said the test results were expected by Friday.

Wildlife officials said tent or sleeping bag fibers were in the captured bears’ droppings, and that a tooth fragment found in a tent appears to match a chipped tooth on the sow.

“Everything points to it being the offending bear, but we are not going to do anything until we have DNA samples,” Aasheim said.

State and federal wildlife officials will determine the fate of the cubs, which are feared to have learned predatory behavior from their mother.

The bear attack was the most brazen in the Yellowstone area since the 1980s, officials said.

In 2008 at the same campground, a grizzly bear bit and injured a man sleeping in a tent. A young adult female grizzly was captured in a trap four days later and taken to a bear research center in Washington state.

“The suspicion among a lot of the residents is that the bear they caught (in 2008) was not the right one,” said Gary Vincelette, who has a cabin in nearby Silver Gate.

Sheppard said there was no truth to that.

About 600 grizzly bears and hundreds of less-aggressive black bears live in the Yellowstone area.

The region is pasted with hundreds of signs warning visitors to keep food out of the bruins’ reach. Experts say bears who eat human food quickly become habituated to people, increasing the danger of an attack.

Yet in the case of the Wednesday’s attack, all the victims had put their food into metal food canisters installed at campsite, Sheppard said.

“They were doing things right,” he said. “It was random. I have no idea why this bear picked these three tents out of all the tents there.”

The 10-acre Soda Butte Campground in Gallatin National Forest has 27 campsites.

Freele, who had been staying there for 13 days with her husband, Bill, said she didn’t think she would stop taking long camping trips.

“I know that this is a one-in-a-million, freak event,” she said. “I might think twice about camping in the same site.”

Neary reported from Cheyenne, Wyo. Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson and Matt Volz in Helena, and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.

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