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Bear attack victim in stable condition, high spirits

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Rudy Noorlander faces long recovery

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS CONTRIBUTOR

BIG SKY – When Ashley Noorlander saw her father’s name pop up on her phone screen the afternoon of Sept. 8 her first thought was, “That’s an odd time for him to call me.” When she answered, a stranger’s voice told her that her dad had just been attacked by a grizzly bear. 

“I always feared for that phone call, but I never thought it would ever come,” Ashley, 28, told EBS in a Sept. 13 interview.

Rudy Noorlander, 61-year-old Navy veteran and owner of Alpine Adventures, a snowmobile and ATV rental company in Big Sky, was attacked by a grizzly bear on Sept. 8 near Yellow Mule Trail just south of Big Sky. He suffered extensive injuries, according to his daughter, including having his lower jaw ripped off, a broken esophagus and trachea, a punctured lung and bite and claw marks all over his body.

“Worst French kiss of my life,” Rudy quipped about the experience, writing on the whiteboard that he uses to communicate with friends and family. That sense of humor and strong spirit are on full display during his recovery, according to Ashley, who said her dad has been cracking jokes throughout his stay at University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City. 

“He is the strongest and funniest person I know,” Ashley said.

Rudy ventured out that day to help two hunters, who rented side-by-sides from him, to track down a mule deer they shot on Wednesday morning. The hunters were a father-son duo from Georgia; father George Whittle, 48, said he has been coming to Big Sky for 17 years to hunt and has been hunting for 33 years.

Whittle said all three of them were carrying bear spray and he and Rudy both carried guns on them as well while they tracked the deer. As they approached the area where Whittle and his son had last seen the deer, they were separated from Rudy while walking down a hill.

Whittle could hear Rudy yelling and he and his son immediately ran to where Rudy was fighting the grizzly as it attacked him.

“We were within five feet of the bear and Rudy and I had my gun drawn,” Whittle said, recounting the event. “I was trying to shoot the bear in the head, but the bear had Rudy by the mouth and was ripping him around like a rag doll.”

Whittle and his son yelled at the bear, which eventually dropped Rudy. When it did, Whittle said he shot twice at the bear, though he isn’t 100% sure whether he hit it. Whittle immediately called 911 and made Rudy as comfortable as he could.  As he lay on the ground for two hours waiting for help, Rudy stayed conscious, communicating with Whittle using hand signals.

“If it wasn’t for [Whittle] and his son, my dad would not be here,” Ashley said.

When help did arrive, Rudy was airlifted to the Yellowstone Club, where another helicopter with a nurse waited, then to Bozeman Health Deaconess Regional Medical Center where he received emergency stabilization surgery. Doctors closed his wounds and inserted a chest tube to stabilize Rudy’s breathing. 

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Whittle told EBS in a Sept. 14 interview.

He was then transferred to the ICU at University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City where he underwent a second surgery on Sept. 12 to fix his broken esophagus and prepare his jaw for future reconstruction surgery. Rudy is currently in stable condition, according to Ashley, and is scheduled for a reconstruction surgery on Sept. 28 when a piece of bone will be taken from his leg to rebuild his jaw.

“He’s a trooper,” Ashley said. “It’s gonna be hard but if anybody can do it, it’s him.”

LISTEN: The Explore Big Sky podcast with Hoary Marmot spoke with Rudy’s daughter, Ashley.

Following the attack, Region 3 of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks conducted an investigation which concluded that the bear attacked defensively in a surprise encounter. A Sept. 9 emergency closure put into place in the Buck Ridge Yellow Mule area by the Custer Gallatin National Forest has been lifted following the conclusion of the investigation on Sept. 13.

Officials did not find a wounded bear or any of their collared bears nearby in an air search, according to a Sept. 13 press release, but they did find many signs of bear activity including the remains of a cached animal carcass, caches of whitebark pine nuts and bear scat.

“This year has been a busy year for bear conflicts and responding to bear conflicts,” said Morgan Jacobsen, communication and education program manager with FWP.

Above: This data represents grizzly bear conflicts in Montana’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. CHARTS COURTESY OF MONTANA FISH, WILDLIFE AND PARKS

Bears are currently entering hyperphagia, Jacobsen said, a period of increased activity when they eat more food to prepare for winter hibernation. The period of hyperphagia overlaps with archery season, which is also a time of year, according to Jacobsen, when access is better into the areas where the bears are extra active.

Grizzly bears in the lower 48 states are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in February of this year that it is exploring delisting grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

“It’s important for people to be aware that Montana is bear country and the possibility of encountering grizzly bears exists anywhere west of Billings,” Jacobsen said. “Taking steps to be prepared really makes a difference in your personal safety and those around you.”

Some of the safety precautions suggested by FWP for hunters in grizzly country include carrying bear spray, watching for bear signs, hunting in a group and making noise, and observing your kill site through binoculars and making noise if you do need to return to retrieve meat from a kill.

Rudy (right) poses with his daughter KateLynn Davis (Ashley’s sister) (left) on her wedding day. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASHLEY NOORLANDER

To help pay his medical bills, Rudy’s family created a GoFundMe page which has garnered close to $47,000 in donations as of publication. Ashley said the extent of what his VA health insurance will cover is still unclear, but they are hopeful that he will be covered.

The GoFundMe donations, Ashley said, will help to provide her father with some stability when he returns home from the hospital since he won’t immediately be able to return to work.

Despite the long recovery ahead, Ashley said Rudy is in high spirits and she has no doubt that he will be back outside snowmobiling and adventuring as soon as he is able.

In the meantime, Rudy continues to joke with his family.

“If this gets turned into a movie,” Rudy wrote, “I want Sam Eliott to play me.”

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