SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A grizzly bear attacked and killed a Nevada man whose friend moments earlier had shot and wounded the animal during a hunting trip in northwest Montana, authorities said on Saturday.
Steve Stevenson, 39, of Winnemucca, Nevada, died of injuries he sustained in the mauling by the grizzly on Friday, said Brent Faulkner, undersheriff with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in Montana. After the attack, the bear was shot and killed by Ty Bell, 20, also of Winnemucca.
The two men had paired off as part of a four-man hunting party seeking black bears in the rugged Purcell Mountains where Idaho and Montana border British Columbia.
On Friday morning, Bell mistook a young male grizzly as his quarry and shot the bear, which sought refuge in a wooded area, Faulkner said.
The two men tracked the wounded bear, which attacked Stevenson before being shot multiple times by Bell. Bell contacted authorities by cell phone, Faulkner said.
Law enforcement officials from Idaho, Montana and the U.S. Forest Service reached the remote site Friday afternoon. Stevenson’s body was air-lifted to a Montana lab for an autopsy, and a necropsy is planned for the grizzly carcass.
The grizzly attack on a hunter was the first in Montana since 2001, when a bear killed a man dressing out an elk.
A struggling population of fewer than 30 grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened in the Lower 48 states under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, roam the mountain forests of northeastern Idaho and northwestern Montana.
While hunting the protected bears is banned in the Lower 48, the law allows them to be killed if they threaten human life. Faulkner said an investigation is underway by sheriff’s deputies and by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Bear experts say the case of mistaken identity will jump-start programs designed to insure hunters can distinguish between black bears and their hump-shouldered cousin, the grizzly bear.
“People tend to believe telling the difference between black bears and grizzlies is easy and that is not the case,” said Gregg Losinski, a member of a federal-state task force on grizzlies.
Losinski said Montana is a leader in requiring hunters to prove proficiency in distinguishing between the two species.
Telltale traits of a grizzly include humped shoulders, shorter snouts, rounded ears and long claws, he said.
It is rare for grizzlies to kill humans, averaging one fatal mauling every two years in the Lower 48, wildlife managers said.
While conflicts between grizzlies and humans are down this year, deadly encounters are up, government figures show.
In July, a female grizzly in Yellowstone National Park bit a hiker perceived as a threat to its two cubs and lumbered away. The man died from the defensive bite, which severed a vital artery in his thigh, Losinski said.
Last month, Yellowstone rangers said a grizzly was behind the death of a hiker found dead on a back-country trail.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst