SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - One man was killed and a man and a woman were injured by bear attacks in the middle of the night on Wednesday at a popular campground on the edge of Yellowstone Park, wildlife officials said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department spokesman Ron Aasheim said it was believed one bear was involved and at least two tents were left in tatters in the attack, which occurred at the height of the tourist season.
“I thought I would be dinner,” said Deb Freele, 58, of London, Ontario, who recalled awakening from a deep sleep in her tent to find a bear chewing on her arm.
“Within hundredths of seconds, I felt the teeth in my arm, heard bones breaking. I screamed and that seemed to aggravate him. He sunk his teeth into me again,” she recounted in a telephone interview from her hospital room in Cody, Wyoming.
“So I decided to play dead and mean it,” she said, adding that when she did, the bear, which she believed was a grizzly, let go and lumbered away.
Investigators were still trying to determine if the animal was a black bear or a grizzly, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department spokesman Ron Aasheim said.
He said the attacks appeared to be unprovoked, and that the presence of food, which often attracts bears and other wildlife into campgrounds, did not appear to be a factor. Such “random predatory” bear attacks on humans are rare, he said.
The last fatal bear attack in Montana was in 2001, when a grizzly mauled and killed a hunter who was dressing out an elk, Aasheim said.
Soda Butte, which offers 27 campsites in a national forest known for its blue-ribbon trout fishing, was immediately evacuated and nearby campgrounds were closed after Wednesday’s attacks, he said. The incident occurred at the height of the tourist and camping season in the Gallatin.
Wildlife officials launched an all-out search for the bear, or bears, including the use of airplanes and helicopters on the lookout for radio-collared animals or others in the vicinity. Bear traps also were being set in the campground.
The man killed was described as being middle-aged, but no other information about him was immediately released. Freele, and a man who was not identified were taken to a hospital in Cody, Wyoming, with injuries suffered in separate encounters.
An investigation was under way to piece together events.
“It’s a horrible tragedy,” Aasheim said, adding, “When you’re in bear country, there’s always that potential.”
Tony Latham, a retired conservation officer who has investigated previous bear maulings in the region, said predatory attacks on people are unusual, especially if fatal.
“In my 22 years as an officer in Idaho, there was only one predatory attack, and the person got away by getting into a river,” he said. “I don’t believe there was ever anyone killed in Idaho by a bear in those 22 years.”
Additional reporting by Ruffin Prevost in Cody, Wyoming, and James Nelson in Salt Lake City; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh