MONT HELENA – A grizzly bear attacked and killed a bicyclist who was camping in a small western Montana town early Tuesday, triggering an intensive search for the bruin by wildlife officials and law enforcement officers who planned to kill the animal, authorities said.
The pre-dawn attack happened in Ovando, a town of fewer than 100 people about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Helena, said Greg Lemon, a spokesperson with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
The bear had previously wandered into the area where the victim was camping and left but later returned, Powell County Sheriff Gavin Roselles said.
“There was an earlier contact with the bear prior to the event,” Roselles said. “The bear basically came back into the campsite. It wandered into a campsite a couple different times.”
A team of law enforcement and wildlife specialists was brought in to track down and kill the bear, officials said. A crew aboard a helicopter was assisting as searchers looked for a "daybed" where the animal might be sleeping to get out of the heat, Lemon said, adding that the bear was believed to have left Ovando after the mauling.
Wildlife workers set five traps in and around Ovando in hopes of capturing the bear, Lemon said.
An initial report said the victim had been riding a bicycle at the time of the attack. That is not the case, Roselles said.
Lemon said his understanding is that the victim was part of a group on a bike trip.
The victim's identity was not immediately released and further circumstances surrounding the attack were under investigation.
“Our first concern is the community's well-being. The next step is to find the bear," Lemon said.
Officials did not say exactly where the attack occurred, but Roselles said there were other people camping in the vicinity of the attack.
A video camera from an Ovando business caught footage of a grizzly bear Monday night, wildlife officials said. A bear also raided a chicken coop prior to the attack at the campsite.
Ovando saloon owner Tiffanie Zavarelli said it was the first fatal bear mauling that she knew of in the community, located along the Blackfoot River beneath a mountain range that rises into the remote Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 1,500-square mile (4,000-square kilometer) expanse of public forests. Residents of the area are accustomed to living in proximity to bears and know the risks, but the attack left them rattled, said Zavarelli, whose family owns Trixi’s Antler Saloon, named after a well-known trick horseback rider and roper.
“Everybody's pretty shaken up right now. The population here is 75 — everybody knows everybody,” Zararelli said, “The people from Montana, we know how to be ‘bear aware.' But anything can happen."
Bicyclists gathered at Trixi's on Tuesday afternoon were considering plans for their next stop.
“I think we’ll be OK going north,” Jim Drake of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told the Missoulian newspaper. Drake was just four or five days short of completing his seven-week trip.
“We carry bear spray and keep our food in a bear-proof bag. Bears are always a threat, but as long as we take precautions, we’re not too worried. I think we’re more likely to be hit by a car than attacked by a bear," he said.
Blackfoot Inn and general store owner Leigh Ann Valiton said the people of Ovando were “absolutely devastated” by the fatal attack.
Grizzly bears have run into increasing conflict with humans in the Northern Rockies over the past decade as the federally protected animals expanded into new areas and the number of people living and recreating in the region grew. That has spurred calls from elected officials in Montana and neighboring Wyoming and Idaho to lift protections so the animals could be hunted.
In April, a backcountry guide was killed by a grizzly bear while fishing along the Yellowstone National Park border in southwestern Montana. The 420-pound (191-kilogram) bear in that attack was shot and killed when it charged wildlife officials as they approached the site of the mauling.
Ovando is on the southern edge of a huge expanse of wilderness that stretches to the border of Canada and is home to an estimated 1,000 bears — the largest concentrations of the bruins in the contiguous U.S.
The area along the Continental Divide that includes Glacier National Park has seen 11 fatal bear attacks in the last 50 years, including Tuesday's mauling, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Joe Szuszwalak said. Since 2001, there were 20 reported injuries from bears that required the victim to be hospitalized.
The most recent fatal mauling in the Glacier-Continental Divide region was in 2016. An off-duty U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer was attacked and killed after he collided with a grizzly while mountain biking in the Flathead National Forest.
Grizzly bears involved in attacks on humans can be trapped and killed if they are considered a continued public safety threat. Bears involved in non-fatal attacks are often spared in the case of a surprise encounter or if they are protecting their young.
Wildlife managers have sought to lessen the hazards with campaigns encouraging people who live near grizzlies to install bear-resistant garbage cans so the animals don't come looking for human food scraps. They've also educated hunters and hikers on how to travel safely in grizzly country and the importance of carrying bear spray — canisters of irritant that can be used to deter attacking bruins.
It was not immediately known if the victim in Tuesday's attack had bear spray or even any chance to use it.
An estimated 50,000 grizzlies once inhabited western North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. Hunting, commercial trapping and habitat loss wiped out most by the early 1900s.
Grizzly bears have been protected as a threatened species in the contiguous U.S. since 1975, allowing a slow recovery in a handful of areas.
Brown reported from Billings.