Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy

 By Maximilian Werner

[Ed. note] This story follows that of Oct. 30, 2018, “The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly.”

On January 22nd, Wyoming Game and Fish released its second official report on the tragic death of hunting guide Mark Uptain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  Mark was killed on September 14th, 2018, after being attacked by an adult sow grizzly and her year-and-a-half old male cub.  The first official report was filed by WYGF not quite a month after Uptain was killed.  As one might expect, because this report was released relatively early in the investigation, it was premature at best.  This most recent iteration, however, attempts to backfill many of the holes created by the first report as well as to bolster at least some of WYGF’s original conclusions.  One of the report’s handful of reliable proofs is that the bears they “removed” were indeed the two bears involved in the attack, which was determined through the analysis of DNA evidence.  However, while this determination may allay some concerns, this finding seems almost insignificant when compared to other, more troubling aspects of WYGF’s handling of the investigation.  Equally troubling is that no one in the mainstream press seems especially interested in asking WYGF some of the more baffling questions raised by their reports.  Case closed in fatal griz attack, one headline reads.  Despite what this headline would have us believe, however, this case is only just getting started.

As someone who has been following Mark Uptain’s story since it broke, I’ve read pretty much everything that has been published on the subject, including articles, official reports, and comment threads.  Not surprisingly, they represent a wide array of perspectives, theories, and ideas, most of which seek to make some sense of what, from the point of view of many, was a senseless tragedy.  But I also came across a number of ideas that do not serve this end, the most insidious of which is the “Monday quarterback” fallacy, or the notion that because we weren’t there we have no business speculating about what happened or second-guessing the decisions and actions of those involved.  This attempt to silence people who are, for the most part, just trying to understand what happened and why, sounds an awful lot like the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” mentality we hear so much about here in the West.  I for one am deeply suspicious of anyone who advises against asking questions; offering contrary, plausible explanations; and advancing different theories of what happened and why.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before in my dealings with Wildlife Services, an agency that, despite its untouchable, tough guy image, is among the most ideologically and scientifically fragile agencies out there.  That is, because its practices cannot withstand critical scrutiny, the agency circles the wagons rather than engaging the publics they serve in open dialog.  No matter who promotes it, this lack of engagement only serves those whose conduct or actions may be most deserving of scrutiny, while simultaneously relegating the rest of us to a perpetual status quo, which is precisely what we must change if we hope to adapt to the changing landscape of the new West, one aspect of which is the greater presence of grizzly bears.  As I think is true with any tragedy, the key is to wrest every piece of meaning that we can from it so that, going forward, we can not only use that information to prevent conflict, but to correct, design, and implement more responsive policies and protocols for when conflicts do occur.  The alternative—obediently and unquestioningly relying on what the “experts” tell us even though serious missteps may have been made—is tantamount to aiding and abetting.  So far it does not appear that we can rely on WYGF to give a full account of their role in what happened on that mountain and the mainstream press’s coverage has done precious little to change that fact.

However much it may seem otherwise, even the first responders who had the difficult task of investigating Mark’s death had to engage in at least some post hoc reconstruction.  Mark Uptain was the only person on the ground who could have told us what happened to him once his client Corey Chubon high-tailed it out of there.  Everyone else has to reconstruct what happened after-the-fact.  The authors of the WYGF report acknowledge this reality when, in the Details section of their document, they note that they’ve reconstructed the attack “as much as possible, given the information available, and [their report] does not include speculation about details not supported by evidence or the investigation.”  On the face of it, this excerpt seems perfectly reasonable if not expected.  But any time we engage in post hoc reconstruction we introduce the possibility of error and/or omission.  That is, we introduce the possibility of getting things wrong.  This may be the only reason we need for why, contrary to the wishes some, speculation is sometimes a necessary and useful mechanism for guarding against oversight, blind spots, lazy thinking, or deliberate and outright attempts to manipulate or deceive.

WYGF’s decision not to speculate is not a problem in itself, of course, but I find it odd that they would even mention having done something so basic to good investigative work.  In other words, why mention a given?  The irony is that here, and elsewhere in WYGF’s reporting, we are forced to speculate because the report leaves too many major questions unexplored and unanswered.  Perhaps they were attempting to assure us that protocols were followed and things were done by-the-book.  The trouble with reports is that they are made of words, and like any tool, words can betray us if we don’t know how to use them.  Often times in written communication the intended effect of a rhetorical decision is not the same as its actual effect.  So while WYGF may have intended to reassure readers that investigators did everything they could to save Uptain’s life and have nothing to hide, their “speculation” statement has just the opposite effect.  Why?  Because relying on the evidence is as basic to investigative work as sterilization is to surgery.  Far from reassuring me and thereby eliminating any subsequent need I might feel to question their conclusions, the comment draws even more attention to their conclusions and the evidence on which they are based.

One conclusion that WYGF has advanced from the outset is that the sow was acting abnormally when it attacked Uptain.  This ridiculous idea, which flies in the face of common sense and serves no other purpose other than to malign the bears and place undue emphasis on their (rather than human) behavior, was again advanced in WYGF’s most recent report, and again the press, most notably The Jackson Hole Daily, made no effort to challenge it.  I have already addressed the problems with this thinking in an earlier article, but I think it’s worth returning to for a moment, in part because, as was true the first time WYGF offered its bear-as-aberration theory, WYGF’s recent reporting actually offers evidence for precisely the opposite interpretation, which is that bear was behaving exactly as we would expect her to under the circumstances.  After ruling out the possibility that the sow attacked for predatory reasons, the report notes that grizzly bears “typically attack people for one of three defensive reasons,” including food guarding, protection of offspring, and personal space.  Apparently, in order for the attack to qualify as food guarding, the bear would have already had to have been in possession of the carcass when Uptain and Chubon approached.  But this interpretation relies on a very narrow definition of possession and guarding, one that wildlife managers, hunters, and anyone who enters grizzly bear country would be wise to broaden.

According to the report, “the evidence suggests that the desire of the bears to feed on the elk carcass was the motivating factor in the incident.”  Although this statement is intended to provide an alternative explanation to the three “typical” reasons for why grizzlies attack humans, the curious use of the word desire actually suggests another, more nuanced way of interpreting and deepening our understanding of the sow’s behavior.  We know from the Attack Details section of the report that Uptain and Chubon “located the dead elk after following a large blood trail” almost a day after Chubon had wounded it.  This fact in itself is significant because it means that the scene was saturated with death cues long before the two men arrived.  And as we all know through our own experience, desire is not objectless.  One could argue, then, that the bear’s sense of possession started the moment she keyed into the odor of the dead elk. With each additional encounter with physical indicators of the elk’s death (most notably the large blood trail and “elk parts” that Uptain had dragged away from the carcass) the object of her desire was increasingly realized, until finally she came up over the ridge, the carcass and the men came into view, and all hell broke loose.  It’s here that the sow’s defensive-aggressive attack instincts of protecting offspring and personal space likely came into play.  Perhaps more than any other document found in the report, the hand-drawing of the scene most clearly depicts how all these variables came together and almost certainly lead to this outcome.  And yet, WYGF, with the help of sympathetic news outlets, seems determined to advance the “aberrant bear” narrative, the effect of which is to imperil bears, endanger humans that venture into bear country, promote misunderstanding, and at the same time erode the public confidence in the agency.

Although I disagree with WYGF’s characterization of the bear’s behavior as abnormal, no investigator worth his salt is going to hang his hat on a single piece of evidence.  It’s only when evidence for a particular conclusion starts piling up that a case is made.  I admit I’ve been troubled by WYGF’s handling of the Uptain investigation since The Jackson Hole Daily’s Mike Koshmrl originally reported on it.  After talking with Koshmrl, and like other people who care about humans and wildlife, I had hoped that future reporting would be more critical and answer other, equally important questions raised by the investigation.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, those questions not only remain unanswered, but have become even more urgent now that WYGF seems intent on putting the Uptain tragedy behind them.  Oddly, one question that has not come up in the reporting may well be the most important question of all: Why did the SAR team consisting of two SAR personnel and one game warden leave the scene before determining whether or not Mark Uptain was dead?  The report attempts to answer this question in a number of explicit and implicit ways, but if I were Mark Uptain or a member of his family, I would not be heartened or persuaded by a single one them.  The first piece of information (I won’t call it a reason) that may have informed, but by no means determined, the SAR team’s decision to leave before locating Uptain was Chubon’s belief that Uptain likely hadn’t survived the attack.  But one would have to be very cynical indeed to conclude that Chubon’s belief that Uptain was dead was a factor, which is why I mention it only in passing.  The second and third pieces of information, which I would call reasons, are found in one of the supplemental reports.  The report indicates that after extracting Chubon from the mountain, the SAR helicopter “needed to refuel and headed back to forward Ops.”  As a result, “Daylight ran out and IC suspended the mission until the following day.”

For the record, I tried contacting two separate SAR Teams, one here in Utah and one in the Jackson Hole area, to ask for their thoughts on this information.  But I don’t think one has to be a trained SAR team member or game warden to see why this information would be alarming.  That is, wouldn’t one assume that the SAR helicopter would have never left the hangar without enough fuel to stay out as long as needed to complete the mission?  Although I was unable to reach anyone from SAR, I was able to ask former and longtime National Park Service employee Bob Jackson about this apparent misstep.  Jackson was a backcountry park ranger for Yellowstone National Park, and over the course of his 30-year career was both directly and indirectly involved with a number of SAR operations, including a handful of grizzly bear attacks.  “There is no way they had so little fuel they could not have at least landed and let a couple people out,” he told me.  “I have been around a fair number of helicopter operations in the Park. From these I know helicopters don’t go out on anything unless there is enough fuel to cover variables.”  Another obvious variable that the SAR team responding to the Uptain attack seems not to have prepared for was nightfall.  On this point, Jackson was even more emphatic:  “I never, ever heard of a Park Service case where somebody was left for the night when there were bear-human incidents.  They had to have had everything with them ready to spend the night.  Never do you leave the scene of something like this incident. They had no idea of whether the mauled victim was alive or dead.  You don’t leave a possibly live human for a night of terror.”

 
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About The Author

Werner Maximilian

Maximilian Werner is Assistant Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of five books, including the recent essay collection The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture. He can be reached at mswerner@gmail.com.

18 Responses to The Night of Terror

  1. avatar Barrie K Gilbert says:

    I first want to thank Ralph for piercing into this complex story. He has the background to do it. And it is complex, so get used to the complexity. Fist fact: I have no dog in this race.
    But I must report that I was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone .. well almost. And after spending the last 3 years defending grizzly bears in a soon-to-be-published book, I agree with Ralph that there is no such thing as a rogue grizzly bear. They do what grizzlies do, and as I lay dying in the upper Gallatin drainage i insisted that my grizzly not be killed.
    State and federal agencies need to stick to the facts and not get into what the politicians want them to say. This is true for grizzly bears as well as Greater Sage Grouse, you name it.
    The era of demonizing grizzly bears should be over. The collusion of grizzly hunter wanna-bees, cattle ranchers and other carnivore hate-mongers should perhaps ask: what does a true Westerner value? I assume that it is not to sterilize the West of what they first loved. Am I wrong?

    • Hello Mr. Werner, This article is an example of anger on both sides (Livestock producers, and Conservationists) and Wyoming Game and Fish is caught in the middle. As Barrie Gilbert stated “they do what grizzlies do” is accurate for all carnivores. Not surprising, is that there isn’t any suggestion for a tangible resolve to mitigate any Wildlife / Human conflicts. Continued ranting does not mitigate these conflicts. I’ve posted to you personally, and below, a suggestion at http://WWW.FENCEFLAGWOLFTRAINING.COM , though not a “perfect” solution, a suggestion to mitigate conflicts with potential tangible results.

      • avatar Maximillian Werner says:

        Thank you for the reply, Donald. My article is about grizzly bear behavior, SAR protocols, and the reporting on the Uptain incident. I’m not sure I see how your fence flags relate to this particular issue.

  2. avatar Frances Rouse says:

    Great article. It appears the truth will never be told.

  3. avatar Barrie K Gilbert says:

    Yes, great article. But I must apologize to Maximillian Werner for my attributing this to Prof. Ralph Maughan.
    Nice work Max!

  4. avatar Kirk Robinson says:

    Hi Barrie! Kirk here. I am glad that you didn’t die on the upper Gallatin and that you are still out there doing things.

    My experience with wildlife management agencies and Wildlife Services, which comes mainly from 30 years of activism in Utah, is that when it comes to carnivore issues particularly, they cannot be trusted to faithfully integrate science or ethics into their decisions and programs. The primary and overriding consideration is always to do what will protect the culture that they helped create and that they cater to. It is their family, which they will defend to the end, even when legitimate justifications are wanting. For someone who really loves truth, this is a fact that might have to be learned the hard way – for example, from being double-crossed. Then you see that they do not act in good faith and that they are not amenable to facts or reason.

  5. avatar Kirk C Robinson says:

    Hi Barrie. I’m sure glad you weren’t killed on the upper Gallatin and that you’re still kicking!

    If you really love truth, and if you have enough integrity and courage to follow evidence and reason wherever it leads, as a good scientist does, the realization that state wildlife management agencies have a different set of priorities can come as a shock. Nevertheless, it is true. Agency folks share an unspoken set of supposedly higher values with those whose interests they serve.

  6. avatar Kirk C Robinson says:

    Sorry for being repetitive. It took so long for my first comment to post I assumed something went wrong.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Kirk,
      First time comments have to be approved manually by me, although I know you used to comment in the past, but perhaps the algorithm resets after so many months of disuse. There are a few who comment that I want to watch for a while, and so I set it so I have to approve each comment, but that’s not you.

  7. avatar idaursine says:

    My goodness, I’m glad too you survived, Mr. Gilbert! I’d love to see a griz, but I want them to be safe (and myself and others) so I stay away.

    Great article! I know what you mean Mr. Werner, when reading media reports, it is very frustrating. And conservationists, or preservationists, are always either ignored or just given a hippy-dippy kind of patronization. Hunters and ranchers opinions always take precedence.

    There was an article I read yesterday in VailDaily with a very concerning headline – ‘State Wildlife Officials ‘Rid’ Glenwood Springs of 5 Mountain Lions’. And this is in the so-called progressive state of Colorado!

    It is a new era in our country – our wildlife and lands are diminishing because of our behaviors of the past, and the mindset needs to change.

  8. avatar T. Lee Lewis says:

    Mr. Werner:

    Thank you for shedding some light on critical aspects of the investigation that WGF officials would sooner sweep under the rug. It is particularly disheartening to know that someone within WGF/SAR made the decision to leave the victim (Mr. Uptain) at the scene overnight without first determining whether or not he was alive and, if so, providing immediate medical attention. Instead WGF/SAR made an assumption that Uptain didn’t survive the attack and was already dead—based on the client’s comments. Seriously?

    The Wyoming public expects more of its WGF/SAR personnel. It is not an unreasonably high standard to expect that SAR and WGF would make sure there was plenty of fuel in the helicopter before initiating the rescue operation. Nor is it an unreasonably high standard to expect that the rescue operation may have to continue after dark, and to be prepared by having sufficient manpower and supplies for such an eventuality.

    Suffice to say, this is a prime example of poor preparation, poor execution, and poor decision-making on the part of SAR/WGF personnel.

    The Wyoming public should demand answers from WGF/SAR to the questions you pose in your article. We want to know who is accountable for the for the unpreparedness, the poor execution, and the poor decision-making that went into this sketchy rescue operation. To sweep the matter under the rug does a disservice to the Uptain family and certainly must compound the loss they must be feeling.

    Again, thank you Mr. Werner. Please continue your pursuit of the truth in the Mark Uptain incident. This Wyomingite appreciates your efforts.

  9. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Thanks for your critique of the report on this incident.

    I read the final report a couple three days ago, and am glad you addressed, at least parts of it.
    https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/environmental/article_c17c97cb-c2f0-5476-aa08-17301f75343d.html

    “the “aberrant bear” narrative,” though not defensive or predatory, might this have simply been this particular bear’s approach to stealing a carcass from wolves? Humans are comparatively speaking too slow and clumsy, especially in this case of short warning either to defend themselves or get out of the way. Or might this have been a case where whether bear spray or gun(read the above link) deployment would have been too late, and running may have been the best defense? As none of us was there, we’ll never really know.

  10. avatar rork says:

    If I get in trouble in the nothing, I don’t feel I’m entitled to great rescue efforts except by my friends. If more people felt that way we’d have less “adventures”. Instead, we now have incompetent people doing stupid stuff all the time. (I’m not saying the guide in this case was incompetent. But he knew there were dangers.) Near me it might be that we will need warning signs on the great lakes shores every 100 yard saying that it might be a bit dangerous out there. We have people in kayaks rounding “the thumb” and Presque isle, suddenly heading for Ontario in giant waves, and people who don’t realize big lakes have currents that can be way beyond your power to fight.

  11. avatar SAP says:

    Re SAR operations:

    In Appendix IV, page 31, there are details about the helicopters. One contract helicopter was out on another search already. The interagency helicopter was assigned to a wildland fire in Big Piney, but was diverted back to Jackson Hole for the Terrace Mountain rescue.

    There is no mention on that page whether the helicopter took on fuel when it arrived from Big Piney, nor whether it left Big Piney fully fueled. I would assume that, because they had a known live patient (Chubon) at a known location, they probably didn’t take time to refuel.

    The appendix states that the helicopter departed Jackson Hole at 1808; on page 7 the report states that they reached Chubon on Terrace Mountain at approximately 1830, and landed him at Turpin Meadows at approximately 1900.

    Based on photos and reports, I’m assuming that the helicopter that Teton SAR flew on 14 Sept 2018 was a Bell 206. The Bell 206 has a fuel capacity of 96.7 gallons, and has average fuel consumption of 30 gallons/hour. Fuel consumption at higher elevations would be greater than average.

    Flight time from Big Piney to Jackson Hole Airport would be about 45 minutes, then the helicopter was airborne from 1808 to about 1900 (52 minutes). (They probably did not shut the helicopter down when they picked up SAR or Chubon – helicopters don’t start right back up like car or truck, so they keep them running for urgent operations.)

    So, that’s 45 plus 52 = 97 minutes of elapsed flight time. Assuming 2.5 hours (150 minutes) total high elevation flight time (leaving some fuel for margin of error), that leaves 53 minutes (assuming they left Big Piney with a full tank, which we don’t know).

    Again: knowing that they had an injured person (Chubon) at a known location somewhere near a grizzly attack, it makes sense that they would not have taken time to refuel at the hangar in Jackson Hole. They only had Chubon’s own assessment of his injuries to go on, and it wouldn’t have been clear how close he remained to the grizzlies. Protocol would dictate that you go save a saveable life promptly.

    We know now that Chubon wasn’t badly injured, and that he was close to a mile from the attack site. Rescuers would not have known any of that with any certainty at launch time (Chubon did accurately estimate his distance from the attack site).

    Could they have flown back up and dropped a team near the attack site? Possibly. Call it 10 minutes to fly in and drop the team off. At that point, the helicopter would be about 20 minutes from closest refueling point (assuming there was not yet an aviation fuel truck at Turpin Meadows that evening).

    53 – 30 = 23 minutes of fuel. All good, right? Not necessarily: consider contingencies, like possibly needing to use the helicopter to scare the grizzlies away. Or, if a member of the team got hurt by a bear or some other hazard. Or, if Uptain had been located alive but needed to be stabilized and then carried to the helicopter. Consider as well that it was almost dark.

    Did SAR base decisions on Chubon’s assessment that Uptain was probably dead? I would think so. We don’t know exactly what Chubon told responders, but it sounds like it was pretty grim. And roughly three hours had elapsed since the attack.

    Based on information available, and based on the decisions they made, it does appear that officials assumed that Uptain had not survived the attack.

    To recap: it was getting dark, the helicopter likely had under an hour of fuel remaining, and the survivor is saying that awful things had happened three hours ago. Weigh that information against the need to keep your crew safe.

    If available information indicated there was a significant probability of saving a life, then bringing in a second helicopter (if available) and more personnel for a night search would have made sense.

    Based on information in the reports, though, it doesn’t sound like Teton SAR simply launched without checking the fuel gauge on the helicopter.

    S. Primm

    • avatar Werner Maximilian says:

      Where are you getting this timeline, Steve? Three hours between the time the attack occurred and the time Chubon was extracted?

      Also (though it may not really matter), Chubon’s estimate that his pick up location was a mile from the attack site appears (literally) exaggerated. I know Google Earth isn’t exact, but my findings suggest that the distance between the two locations was actually closer to a 1/4-1/2 mile.

      And if SAR did, as you suggest, make the decision to leave on the basis of what Chubon told them, I’m not sure that things are looking especially good for them. The fact that we are even having this discussion is illustrative of the problem: If the protocols are so clear (perhaps to you or to SAR or WYGF), then what are they, exactly, and why haven’t we heard about them?

      For what it’s worth.

      • avatar SAP says:

        Timeline comes from the report: In the summary on page one, report states that the attack occurred at approximately 1600; Chubon’s 911 call was at approximately 1634, according to SAR report in the appendix. The helicopter team dropped Chubon off at 1900.

        Drop off time is relevant, as that would’ve been the decision point about what to do next. But, if we want to use the time of helicopter reaching Chubon on the mountain, that’s still 2.5 hours after the attack. At that time, the helicopter did fly over the attack site and did not locate Uptain.

        I don’t know about Teton SAR’s specific protocols, particular in regard to bear attack situations. Hypothetically, I can imagine that a witness’s report about severe injuries could weigh heavily in a search decision (unless there was some reason to doubt the witness’s credibility). Hodges’ report (p 29) states there was massive blood loss from wounds to upper thighs. If Chubon described that kind of bleeding and the forehead wound, and 2.5 or 3 hours had gone by, one might surmise there was a very low probability that there was a savable life at the attack site.

        As I said earlier, I don’t know the details of what Chubon told authorities. But it seems plausible that he could have witnessed and described injuries so severe as to be unsurvivable.

        As to Chubon’s distance from the attack site when he called 911: I used WGF’s UTM coordinates for the attack site, and I used SAR Jess King’s lat/long coordinates from page 31. Google Earth measures those points as 0.68 miles apart. Moving through terrain, Chubon would’ve covered more distance than that.

        • avatar Maximilian Werner says:

          Thanks for the added details. But imagine having this conversation with Uptain’s family. If there were even a chance that Uptain survived, however remote, one would hope efforts would have been made to verify or disprove it. Low probability is not no probability. Best case scenario, they find him alive and get him off that mountain. Worse case scenario, they find him dead and get his body off that mountain.

          • avatar SAP says:

            There would be worse worst cases: rescuers hurt or killed trying to get to the victim in the dark.

            I went over the report again in more detail. On page 27, Dave Hodges wrote that Chubon did provide some details about what he last saw. I won’t restate it here. What Hodges reports there differs from Chubon’s other statement on page 5, that Uptain was “on his feet fighting with the bear.”

            I think that’s my biggest qualm with the report: a clear inconsistency between these two statements by Chubon. It’s possible that he said both things, at different times. It’s an inconsistency that the report should’ve addressed (I don’t think it addresses it). Especially because whatever information Chubon relayed was likely a factor in the decision to suspend operations for the night.

            The “on his feet fighting” statement may have been a trauma-induced invention, maybe a subconscious attempt to deal with survivor’s guilt. He may have wanted to believe that Uptain had a chance to survive. Going toe-to-toe with a charging grizzly sounds like a fanciful Hollywood scene.

            The could’ve/should’ve-done-more nightmare is fairly common among first responders, based on my experience.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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