Yellowstone Grizzly

Why Did Bear — or Bears — Attack at Soda Butte?

Soda Butte Campground, located about seven miles outside of the Northeast Entrance on Hwy. 212, is a popular destination for those wanting to avoid the hustle and bustle of Yellowstone National Park; with lots of trails in the area, some good fishing up the road on the Clark’s Fork and a quaint atmosphere in downtown Cooke City, it’s one of the hidden gems of the Yellowstone region. With an abundance of campgrounds in the Gallatin National Forest, car-camping tourists can hit the area assured of a secluded spot still relatively close to the main road: very rarely are all the campgrounds in the area filled.

It’s also a place where locals aren’t fazed by a grizzly, wolf or moose wandering through their property at all hours of the day and night; the many trails and roads into the mountains (like the Daisy Pass Trail, Sawmill Road and the Lulu Pass Trail) aren’t just the realm of humans. Perhaps that’s why there were no reports of any unusual bear activity in the area in recent weeks, according to the locals we chatted with yesterday; bears are simply always around. Knowing the dangers of living in an untamed environment is part of daily life, and the Soda Butte Campground would have been plastered with signs warning campers about the dangers of bears in the area.

Still, there’s certainly no assumption of risk when a bear decides to attack, which is what happened two mornings ago. Experts are still trying to piece together exactly what happened when one man was killed and a man and woman injured. Until we have the DNA analysis of hair samples, we won’t even know if one bear or multiple bears were responsible for the rampage at Soda Butte Campground, or whether the culprit was a grizzly bear or a black bear. (The DNA should tell us the number of bears, what kind of bears, and the approximate age of the bears.)

UPDATE: Mother bear, cub trapped at Soda Butte Campground; officials suspect she’s the culprit.

This much we know. At about 1:30 a.m. a bear or bears entered the 10-acre campground and made their way through the three separate campground areas, knocking down several tents and attacking three people. The exact sequence of what was attacked is unknown. The two survivors were not camping together, but their campsites were relatively close; the middle-aged man who was killed was camping alone in a different part of the campground, in campsite 22, but authorities aren’t saying where his body was found. We don’t know where the attacks began. We do know that the injured man managed to scare off the bear by yelling and kicking at it. Other campers were awakened by the ruckus and drove through the campground, honking their car horns and driving through the campground to awaken the other campers. A Park County emergency team arrived and later cleared out the campground.

The injuries suffered by the pair were not life-threatening; both were taken and treated by the Cooke City Hasty Team at the Super 8 before being advised to have doctors check out their injuries in Cody. An ambulance transported the woman; the man rode in his own vehicle, and both were released after treatment. The woman suffered multiple lacerations and crushed bones in her arms; the young man had a bite in his calf.

Interestingly, officials have already ruled out food as being a motivator of the bear behavior; everyone had secured their food appropriately in vehicles.

The campground remains closed, though others in the region remain open. Officials set up multiple culvert traps in an attempt to snare the bear or bears.

The DNA samples should reveal whether one bear was at fault or if there were multiple attacks. Sadly, we may never learn exactly what — if anything — prompted the attacks; something may have happened with the fatality to set the bear off. Without the knowledge of why the attacks happened, it’s almost impossible to prevent them in the future.

Which was the same scenario in 2008, when a bear attacked a camper at the very same campground; the man’s hand was bitten and his tent crushed. In that case, the bear was captured and sent out of the region. (We heavily suggest you read our coverage of that incident; the similarities are haunting.) Back then, the locals were mystified as to why a bear would attack a human with seemingly no provocation — and at the end of the day that same sense of mystery may pervade this attack as well.

Photo of grizzly courtesy of National Park Service.

RELATED STORIES: Bear Kills One, Injures Two in Campground Near Yellowstone

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