Scary Grizzly Trapping Incident
Craig Jourdonnais is a Fish Wildlife and Parks game biologist in the Bitterroot Valley. He was part of a grizzly bear trapping team that had quite an experience several years ago. Craig has quite a story to tell.
I Met a Woman
“I met a woman and she’s as mean as she can be.” Famous American music icon Roy Orbison wrote those words for his song ‘Mean Woman Blues’ many years ago. I figure Mr. Orbison had no idea those lyrics might relate to a mother grizzly in Dupuyer, Montana during the fall of 1984.
FWP’s grizzly bear trapping crew for the East Front Grizzly Project based in Choteau received the call early one crisp September morning. Trap doors came down on a female griz and her two cubs. The grizzly family wondered down Dupuyer Creek, away from the mountain front and began hanging along the creek bottom within ear-shot of the once sleepy town of Dupuyer. Their presence rapidly developed into a public safety issue. Town folks were edgy.
The grizzly trapping team, of which I was a member, set two culvert traps. Culvert traps are barrel-shaped contraptions mounted on wheels for easy towing. Most of the early versions of this trap design included a section of culvert, hence the name culvert trap.
However, the trapping team used a new aluminum, lightweight version during this trapping effort. The team wanted a culvert-style trap that trappers could slide into the back of a pickup or sling load from a helicopter. The aluminum version allowed bear managers to apply the effectiveness of a culvert trap to more diverse situations. FWP worked closely with a local metal worker to develop this aluminum trap. This trapping effort was its maiden voyage.
Each culvert trap has a trap door, when a bear climbs into the culvert to tug on the bait wired to a trigger. When the bear pulls the bait, it activates the trigger and releases the trap door; done deal. We had set two traps hoping that the sow would move toward the bait first, trap herself then have the cubs check out the second trap and become trapped. The setup worked flawlessly. The ‘Mean Woman Ballad’ wasn’t even a thought on that early September morning, but Roy was opening his guitar case.
The trap team worked with an area landowner to move the traps into an expansive aged sheep shed on the north end of town. This location offered protection from the high winds, a quiet place to tranquilize the bears and a chance to control the certain arrival of interested local folks wanting to get a close look at the griz family. There is always some irony in working with species like grizzlies and wolves. Many folks hold a disdain for these critters and yet they often are the very folks who are most inquisitive of these predators when the animals are immobilized.
We decided to work on the sow first. She was in the new aluminum trap. The lead trapper, Mike Madel estimated her weight at 425 pounds. Mike prepared a tranquilizer dart connected to a jab stick. The darting process involved one trap member keeping the attention of the sow through the heavy wire mesh window on the trap door. Mike would then open a smaller door on the side of the trap and quietly slide the jab stick into position. A quick jab into the bear’s rump and we would simply sit back and allow the drug to take effect.
As Mike opened the ‘small’ door on the side of the trap, the sow growled and punched her front foot, claws and all, through the opening. With a single swipe, she broke the jab stick in half and struck a moment of surprise into the growing crowd observing the action in the sheep shed. The sow continued to bawl and snap her teeth. Certainly she could smell her cubs in the nearby trap. That was a game changer.
I haven’t met anything in the Rocky Mountain West that compares to the rage and intensity of a mother griz separated from her cubs. That includes the time my mother found out that my oldest brother and I threw metal darts at our younger brother. Hit him right in the temple. It was a character building experience for all of us. No wonder I break out in a cold sweat when folks start talking about legalizing hunting with spears in Montana. How’s my younger brother? Other than that little needle-like scar, he’s fine.
The aluminum trap shook from momma griz’s rage. We needed to act quickly, before she worked herself into a froth. The team talked through a host of options for effectively darting the sow. We settled on tipping the culvert toward the trap door end, causing the sow to slide away from the window and allowing Mike to operate the jab stick. Seemed like a solid plan.
As members of the team tipped the trap, Momma griz slid down into position with all 425 pounds resting against the trap door. The trap door on most culvert traps slide along two pieces of angle iron positioned on each side of the door. The angle iron holds the door in place.
One of the team members and I were stationed at the trap door. We looked down simultaneously and noticed that the weight of Momma griz caused the trap door to bow outward. Another 1/8 inch and the door would simply pop out of the angle iron runners. We glanced at one another in an immediate and extreme panic. The lives of 15 people flashed before our eyes that day. An 1/8 inch is all that kept the folks in the barn from becoming one of the most infamous grizzly-human encounters in Montana history. Some folks say close only counts in horseshoes. To this day, I fail to wrap my brain around the ensuing mayhem of that angry grizzly sow having full access to the 15 people stuck inside that old sheep shed.
By the grace of God, there were two short 2x4s lying on the ground next to the trap. We grabbed those pieces of wood and jammed them against the door and ground. The remainder of the team continued w with their duties, unaware of the trap door dilemma.
Mike darted the bear while another team member and I held the wood braces in place with all our might as the drug took effect. The town folks present never knew that they came within 1/8 of an inch of pure grizzled terror. The team tagged each grizzly and placed a radio collar on momma. We released them the next day west of the Continental Divide.
If everyone gets ten minutes of fame, I am incredibly grateful that mine didn’t occur inside that old sheep shed near Dupuyer, Montana. The events that day led toward major improvements in all aluminum culvert traps. You can thank grizzly bear #365 for that.
Hit it Roy.