CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson

EBS Environmental Columnist

We don’t yet know what Chris Queen was thinking when he pulled the trigger Oct. 25, 2017, and killed a mother grizzly northwest of Cody with one shot, orphaning her three cubs.

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

Automatically, the rhetorical defensive posture being staked out is 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.”

This is precisely the kind of attitude, however, 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 of Greater Yellowstone’s bear population being protected under the Endangered Species Act. The state hopes to commence a sport hunt of grizzlies as early as 2018.

That this latest bear killing involves a Game and Fish field man and a sow with three cubs invites intense scrutiny. No one I know doesn’t value human life, and no one I know, or care to associate with, wishes harm had come to Queen.

It’s about his actions that are being investigated, as it should be.

In 2013, 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. He claimed mistaken identity, that he was unable to distinguish it from a black bear. Pleading guilty, Ellsbury was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution.

Lance Mathess, spokesman for the Park County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office, said the investigation is ongoing. He issued this statement: “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.”

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

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 is concerned about the message this incident sends, which is certain to be invoked by 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 notes. The loss of sows that give birth to higher litters of cubs can have huge rippling consequences. When Queen shot the sow, he essentially didn’t kill one bear; he killed four because the three young cubs are unlikely to survive in the wild and if they were somehow rounded up they would be sent to a zoo or euthanized.

Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen says 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, mostly from direct human causes.

Kent Nelson, founder of Jackson-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, says 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, calls 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 says 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 asks.

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 called Be Bear Aware, says it’s easy to speculate on what Queen should or shouldn’t have done.

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.”

There ought to be an investigation and most important is the information that comes out of it, providing a way for everyone to be better informed.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.