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Survivor’s family describes rescue on Sun River

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David Murray, Great Falls Tribune
Published 5:53 p.m. MT May 22, 2020

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Video by the Briggs family of Dupuyer, Montana, moments before they rescued three grizzly bear cubs. The sow was euthanized after attacking a hiker.

Great Falls Tribune

The attack was swift, unprovoked and unexpected. In less time than it takes to pick out a breakfast cereal the bear was upon him.

On May 17, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks posted its second report of a grizzly bear mauling on the eastern edge of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front in little more than five weeks.

The first attack, which occurred on the evening of April 8, left a resident of the Dupuyer area mauled but able to hobble home without assistance. Sunday’s attack was more serious.

The FWP issued a news release on the day after the Sun River mauling stating the bear had “bit him in a couple of places” and that the victim had to be air lifted out of a remote area on the Sun River north of Augusta.

On Thursday, the family of the second mauling victim published a Facebook post describing events surrounding his mauling. The family asks that their anonymity and privacy be respected as the victim recovers, but have agreed to share some of the details of their story.

Mercy Flight first responders prepare to take the bear attack victim. “That badass pilot landed on a patch of river rock about the size of a small pick-up truck.” (Photo: Kurt Geise)

More bear news: How to rope a grizzly: Montana family saves three orphan cubs

“I would like to ask that you take care of my friends who took such great care of me by sparing them the retelling/reliving of the event,” the mauling victim posted from his hospital bed.

“(He) is doing just fine,” the victim’s wife added of her husband’s gradual recovery. “My request is to go easy on these people (those who participated in her husband’s rescue). “We promise there will be ample opportunities when we can all be together to hear the whole story and to express the gratitude that he is right there with us to tell it.”

Events began as the members of a float trip were packing up their gear and preparing to shove off from their campsite not far from Willow Creek Reservoir. The victim of the bear attack had walked off into some of the surrounding willows to relieve himself before returning to their camp on the Sun River.

Willow Creek Reservoir near Montana’s Sun River, approximate site of the May 17 grizzly bear attack (Photo: Google Maps)

“He was in the scrub brushand saw a bear walk by at less than 20 yards,” the Facebook post states. “It didn’t see him, but as luck would have it another bear was walking 70 yards ahead.

Information from FWP states the man had encountered a sow grizzly bear with her cub.

“Our dear friend (a woman) yelled Bear! when she saw it walking – what later proved to be 17 yards behind her tent,” the Facebook post states. “That bear bolted upriver. The bears were upwind from us and apparently had no idea we were there. (The victim) yelled his warning almost simultaneously when he saw the second bear.”

The man’s yell startled the second bear, likely the mother sow, as it followed several yards behind its cub. The bear spun, then charged at the victim. It was on him in a moment, the momentum of the attack knocking the man to the ground.

“Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to roll over on his stomach and raise his arms up, clasping his hands on the back of his head to protect his head, face and most importantly his eyes,” the post states. “The bear batted him around and bit him in several spots.

“As this was happening, all of us at camp were frantically searching for our bear spray canisters, which we’d been in the process of packing up. Our friend and literal lifesaver charged toward the melee yelling with all his might and doing everything in his power to get the bear off (the victim) – a dangerous proposition if the bear decided to turn on him.”

But it didn’t. The victim’s friend’s show of force scared the bear away. According to the FWP release the sow eventfully swam across the Sun to the opposite side of the river, leaving its victim face-down in the mud with blood pooling in the water beside his head.

“Then another hero swooped in,” the Facebook post states. “(She) set to work with her level head and fully stocked first aid kit to start assessing the damage and cleaning and bandaging the wounds, all while calming (the victim) as he went through shock. Her backcountry medicine skills and pure take-charge were incredible.”

Related:  Wildlife officials relocate 3 grizzlies found near Swan Lake

One camper stood guard with a can of bear spray, while a second climbed the steep embankment next to their camp to try and find a cell phone signal. Emergency responders from Augusta arrived minutes later, followed by a Mercy Flight helicopter out of Great Falls.

Augusta EMS officer, Kurt Geise, said that at first emergency responders didn’t have an exact pinpoint on where the bear attack had occurred, so he asked the Benefis air ambulance crew to fly up the course of the Sun River to locate where the victim, his friends and family were waiting for them.

“We didn’t have a precise location,” Geise said, “so I requested Mercy Flight fly up from Highway 287, up the Sun River to help locate the situation.”

“That badass pilot landed on a patch of river rock about the size of a small pick-up truck,” the victim’s Facebook post states. “The medics got to work quickly. He (the victim) was conscious and calm the whole time so he was able to talk to them. An amazing EMT named Shannon (took) the time to make sure (the victim’s daughter) was okay. He took us over to the helicopter and let her sit in it and helped her understand that everything was going to be okay.”

Site of the May 17 grizzly attack shown here, on the banks of the Sun River near the Willow Creek Reservoir (Photo: Kurt Geise)

After the Mercy Flight helicopter left it was up to the remaining members of the float trip to get everyone else off of the river safely. They rowed non-stop for the following 12 hours, with one of the crew reassuring the victim’s daughter with conversations about infections and vocabulary words.

The victim of the Sun River bear attack remains in a hospital recovering from his injuries. Much of that time he’s spent alone because COVID-19 quarantine guidelines have prevented his family from being at his bedside.

“Don’t get mauled by a grizzly in the middle of a global pandemic,” the Facebook post warns. “Also ALWAYS have your bear spray accessible.”

“Those are just a couple of the millions of lessons learned from this,” the victim’s wife continued. “One thing I didn’t learn is just how strong my husband is. I already knew that. He is stronger today than yesterday and will be stronger tomorrow.”

David Murray is Natural Resources/Outdoors reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email at dmurray@greatfallstribune.com or call (406) 791-6574. To support his work, subscribe today and get a special offer.

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