Bear in Mind: Game warden killing of grizzly raises questions

By on November 8, 2017

“Grizzly Comfort,” Thomas D. Mangelsen

We don’t yet know what Chris Queen was thinking when he pulled the trigger on October 25 in an area northwest of Cody, killing the mother grizzly with one shot, orphaning her three cubs.

Queen told authorities the sow bluff charged him, then backed off returning to her cubs and then suddenly raced toward him at top speed.

The easy question is why didn’t the off-duty warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department use bear spray?

The rhetorical defensive posture is likely this: “Well, whether he should have used bear spray or a gun to resolve the encounter doesn’t matter. He felt threatened and he’s alive. He fired in self-defense. You can’t judge him because you weren’t there.”

That is precisely the kind of attitude, though, that worries large numbers of American citizens and wildlife conservationists, who doubt the state of Wyoming’s ability to steward grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave bear management back to the states last summer after 42 years. Prior to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Greater Yellowstone’s bear population had been protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The state hopes to commence a sport hunt of grizzlies as early as 2018.

Considering that this latest bear killing involves a Game and Fish field man and a sow with three cubs, the situation invites intense scrutiny.

A Game and Fish colleague of Queen’s — Luke Ellsbury, who had been a state bear management specialist — also killed a grizzly east of Yellowstone back in 2013. He claimed mistaken identity, unable to distinguish it from a black bear.

After pleading guilty, Ellsbury was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution.

According to C. Lance Mathess, spokesman for the Park County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office, said the investigation is ongoing.

“Warden Queen had bear spray on him. However, he also had his rifle in both hands and the attack happened so quick that he made the decision to discharge the rifle. He would have had to drop the rifle to deploy the bear spray and in his mind, there wasn’t sufficient time,” Mathess said.

Doug Peacock, the Vietnam medic and renowned bear conservationist, wants to know more details about what the bear was communicating in her body language.

Peacock said he is concerned about the message this incident sends to other hunters who shoot bears.

Wyoming has claimed it will be vigilant in promoting bear spray use, minimizing conflicts, protecting female bears, preventing mistaken identity, and selling a limited, tightly-regulated number of bear tags.

“This Game and Fish agent, by this incident, makes it look okay to shoot any bear, especially a productive female, and he needs to look less than noble in his apparent explanation that he was ‘forced to shoot,’” Peacock said. “The greatest threat to the survival of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies is simply killing them for any reason. That’s how we almost lost the population to begin with.”

Grizzlies are slow to reproduce, he noted. The loss of sows that give birth to higher litters of cubs can have huge rippling consequences.

Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen said killing a sow with triplets, as Queen did, is not insignificant.

He points to famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 who, as a 21-year-old, has 17 different bruins descended in her bloodline. However, about half are already dead, most of which were caused by humans.

Kent Nelson, founder of Jackson-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said that for decades Wyoming state government has treated grizzlies as non-revenue-generating management burdens.

“Game and Fish is predisposed against grizzlies and wolves because all of their institutional incentives favor more abundant game animals that can be hunted in large numbers. Selling elk and deer licenses is their bread and butter, the more the merrier,” he said. “Large predators not only allegedly cut into their revenue stream, they reduce the return on the investments they make to ensure a surplus of huntable animals.”

Jackson Hole attorney Deidre Bainbridge, a wildlife advocate, called the incident “very disturbing—particularly so at this pivotal time when Game and Fish assumes the responsibility for managing this fragile species.”

Bainbridge wonders if Queen adhered to the principles laid out in his own department’s “Bear Wise Program.”

She said the burden in proving self-defense resides with the hunter.

“In truth self-defense is not automatically justified. It is first invoked as defense to a possible crime—the illegal take—and it must be proven. Would a reasonable man in a similar circumstance have feared imminent mortal injury or would he have used bear spray?” she said.

So would bear spray have worked?

“We don’t know, but I don’t give the warden the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “He should know how to behave in bear country to protect the bear, especially one with three cubs.”

Chuck Bartlebaugh, who heads a bear spray education program “Be Bear Aware,” said it’s easy to speculate.

To him, given the circumstances, it sounds like Queen would have had enough time to deploy bear spray.

“It sure doesn’t look good when a state guy who is out hunting and should be modeling public behavior for how to non-lethally resolve human-grizzly encounters kills the bear,” Bartlebaugh said. PJH

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