Gary Detwiler was doing what every good hunter would do, helping his hunting partner track an elk.
The pair made their way through a rugged section of Idaho, near Island Park in the extreme northeast corner of the wide base of the state.
With the vast wilds of Beaverhead National Forest to the north and Yellowstone National Park to the east, they were hunting in the area of the Targhee National Forest, which sits on the continental divide, near the point where Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho meet.
Henry’s Fork Caldera, created by some of the same internal fires of the earth that sculpted much of Yellowstone, is a dominant feature in the region, as is Mount Jefferson, which shoots more than 10,000 feet toward the sky. Numerous trout streams cut threads through the craggy hillsides of the area, while forests blanket those slopes and spread down to wide, grassy meadows.
This is elk country, and that is why Detwiler, a 67-year-old hunter from Michigan, was there.
But if it’s elk country, then that also means it is very likely grizzly country, and that’s how the tables turned on the two hunters.
His bow hunting partner James Kindy had shot a big, six-by-six bull elk just before dark on the third day of their hunt. Not wanting to push a wounded animal, the pair decided to return the next morning to track the elk
They picked up the blood trail upon their return to the area and moved across a fairly open area with a few clumps of small pine trees scattered about. When they approached a brushy area, Detwiler thought he saw the downed animal.
“At first glance, I figured I was looking at the bull elk,” Detwiler said. “But I didn’t see any antlers, and then a fraction of a second later, all I saw was ears and teeth. I was maybe 12-feet away and that grizzly jumped on me in a flash.”
The bear bit into his arm in the bicep area and pierced his ribs. As quickly as it struck, the grizzly returned to the cover of the group of trees.
“I don’t know if the bear was just bedded down in that area and it reacted to us being there, or whether it had picked up on the elk coming by there the night before,” Detwiler said. “All I know is there was absolutely no time to react. You read about how fast these bears are and you hear about it, but you can’t imagine what the experience is like. You think you are going to die. Their speed, for an animal that big, is really amazing.”
Grizzly bears can reach more than 800 pounds, yet have bursts of speed up to 40 miles per hour. They eat just about anything — roots, berries, grasses, insects, fish, carrion, and many mammals, from small rodents to full-size moose and elk.
After Detwiler was attacked by the grizzly, he and his hunting partner had a four-mile hike back to their truck, and then about a 20-mile drive to the nearest medical clinic, located in tiny Ashton, Idaho.
“It was bleeding, but not bad enough that I didn’t think I could make it,” said Detwiler, who has been hunting that area for nearly two decades.
After Detwiler’s wounds were cleaned and sutured, Kindy returned to the site where they had been tracking the elk, and with the help of a couple of local hunters, continued the search. They did not find the bull elk, and they were not certain if the grizzly had claimed it or had just used the area to bed down.
Wildlife officials chose not to pursue the grizzly right away, since they determined that its actions were likely defensive in nature, either to protect the elk carcass or its territory. Warning signs were posted and patrols in the area increased to let other hunters or the public become aware of the presence of a grizzly.
Detwiler, who has been bow hunting for nearly 50 years, tried to continue to hunt, but found it was too difficult to draw his bow with his arm injured. Now back at his home in Midland, Detwiler said he will have to spend some time mulling over the destination for his next bow hunting trip, given what he sees as a dangerous increase in the grizzly bear population in the Idaho-Wyoming-Montana wilderness triangle.
“There’s more grizzlies there than before — people are afraid to go outside, and they can’t hike and they can’t bike and most of them won’t risk it hunting the area,” he said.
Grizzlies are protected by federal law in the lower 48 states, where they are designated as a threatened species. Estimates put the grizzly population in the lower 48 at about 1,200, with more than 30,000 in Alaska.
“I’ll have to think about it, but I’ll probably go back since we’ve had such good success there,” said Detwiler, who has put a couple of his trophies in the record books. “I’m getting older, so I’ve let more big ones go than I’ve shot in recent years. I still like to hunt them, but it’s getting so I don’t like to shoot them as much.”
Contact Blade outdoors editorMatt Markey at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6068 .