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The Wyoming hunter who shot a grizzly bear near Grand Teton National Park claimed self-defense. Authorities say the bear was not an immediate threat. You decide.

Should Hunter Who Killed Grizzly Bear Be Prosecuted?

“A hunter from Teton Village has been charged with illegally killing a grizzly bear after the man told authorities he shot one Sept. 19 near Ditch Creek north of Kelly,” reported the Jackson Hole News & Guide on October 1, 2009. “Stephen Westmoreland, 40, was charged Wednesday with taking a grizzly bear without a license.”

Westmoreland was packing out a deer when he startled a nearby grizzly feeding on a moose carcass. First the bear stood up. Then the bear “dropped to all fours and moved several steps towards the subject, approaching the hunter at a distance of approximately 40 yards,” said Game Warden Bill Long of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Westmoreland shot the bear with a .270 rifle. “It is legal to shoot a grizzly in self-defense,” noted the Jackson Hole News & Guide, “but authorities believe there was no immediate threat in this case.”

“What a piece of crap this guy is,” said a blogger at Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News. “The wrong carnivore died that day.”

Another person remarked, “Learn bear behavior, read a couple articles and or books and these incidents could be avoided. Some alarmist retard probably put this guy on high alert with some dumb story and provoked the shooting.”

At the Yellowstone Net, news that the hunter had been charged sparked comments like “Good,” and “The guy sounds like a flatlander to me.”

Was the grizzly an immediate threat to Westmoreland? Was he trigger happy after reading too many bear attack tales in hook and bullet magazines? Do the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Grand Teton National Park, provide hunters with guidelines on when it’s OK to shoot a bear in self-defense? Do they prepare hunters to use their rifles for self-defense during a dangerous encounter with a grizzly? These agencies, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Center For Wildlife Information, are all members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.

If you visit the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee online and go to “Bear Safety,” you’re redirected to the Center For Wildlife Information. Federal agencies belonging to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee provide $60,000 a year in funding to the Center For Wildlife Information, where you’ll find a webpage on “Hunting in Bear Country.” There’s no information on the proper use firearms for self-defense in grizzly country. There’s no information on firearms, period.

A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “fact sheet” titled Tips For Elk Hunters in Grizzly Country warns that “claims of self-defense are thoroughly investigated,” but fails to explain when it’s OK to shoot in self-defense, and when it’s not. Nor does Tips For Elk Hunters in Grizzly offer hunters any advice on how to use their rifle for self-defense if they have a dust off with a grizzly.

Grand Teton National Park has an annual elk reduction hunt, but Grand Teton does not offer hunters any guidelines on how to use a firearm for self-defense, or when it’s OK to shoot a bear in self-defense.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department? Nothing. U.S. Forest Service? Nothing.

It seems like the real crime here is the failure of state and federal agencies to provide Westmoreland and other hunters with guidelines on when it’s OK to shoot a grizzly in self-defense, and when it’s not.

In addition, agencies basically ignore hunter safety. Through an excise tax on guns and ammo, hunters pour millions of dollars into the Pittman-Robertson that’s supposed to be used for hunter safety and education. The Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho game and fish departments fail to provide hunters with any meaningful information on how to use their firearm for self defense during a worst case scenario with a grizzly.

Let’s evaluate Westmoreland’s situation. Let’s consider his options. Was Westmoreland dangerously close to the grizzly? A Grand Teton National Park brochure titled Wildlife Viewing tells visitors they should “Always maintain a safe distance of at least 300 feet from large animals such as bears, bison, moose and elk.”

Westmoreland was 120 feet from a grizzly on a carcass. That’s not safe. Westmoreland was dangerously close to the grizzly. Could the bear be considered an “immediate threat?”

A Grand Teton National Park brochure titled Hiking In Bear Country states that “Individual bears have their own personal space requirements, which vary depending on their mood. Each bear will react differently and a bear’s behavior can’t be predicted.”

OK, Westmoreland is dangerously close to an unpredictable grizzly bear. Given these facts, is the bear an immediate threat?

A Grand Teton National Park brochure titled What To Do If You See A Bear says, “Bears may appear tolerant of people and then attack without warning.”

So, based on information from Grand Teton National Park, Westmoreland was dangerously close to an unpredictable grizzly that might attack without warning. It seems like it might be a tad difficult for a prosecutor to argue that the grizzly bear did not pose an “immediate threat” to Westmoreland.

If human safety is the #1 issue, it makes perfect sense for Westmoreland to shoot the bear before it launches a charge. For a hunter armed with a scoped .270, a stationary grizzly 40 yards away is a sitting duck. Shooting the bear virtually guarantees the safety of Westmoreland or any reasonably competent shot. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Should Westmoreland have held fire until the bear charged? A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “fact sheet” titled Bear Spray vs. Bullets says that “experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt.”

“Even experienced gun handlers often can’t react fast enough or shoot straight enough to stop a charging grizzly. Bears don’t often go down with just one shot, and a wounded grizzly becomes even more dangerous.” Mark Of The Grizzly

A Sierra Club brochure titled Bear Pepper Spray: It Works! , warns hunters that if they attempt to shoot a charging grizzly, “the result of a person using a gun is likely to create a wounded and angrier bear. The latter scenario most likely leads to more severe attacks.”

Given dire warnings like this, why would Westmoreland wait for the grizzly to charge? He’s already dangerously close to the bear; waiting for it to charge just puts him at higher risk. Adding to that risk is that cold-hearted fact that state and federal agencies offer no advice on how to use a firearm for self-defense. They’re setting up hunters for failure . . . injuries . . . death.

How close to a grizzly does a hunter have to get before the bear is an “immediate threat?” Is close proximity to a grizzly the only issue, or do hunters have to wait until the bear charges before shooting? To provide for hunter safety and prevent the unnecessary killing of grizzly bears, state and federal agencies need to give hunters guidelines on when it’s OK to shoot a bear in self-defense. Equally important, agencies must provide hunters with information and training on how to use their firearms effectively for self-defense.

Here are 11 tips on how to use a firearm safely and effectively for self defense from grizzly bears.

1.) Do not carry your rifle slung over one shoulder. During a classic surprise encounter with a nearby grizzly, you won’t have time to bring your rifle into action. Of the six field carries for long guns, the two-hand ready carry is your best bet for quick action—including a desperation shot from the hip.
2.) Keep a round in the chamber, safety on. If you don’t have a round in the chamber, particularly with a bolt-action rifle, you won’t have time to chamber a round during a sudden encounter with a grizzly.
3.) Choosing the “right” caliber rifle for bears is a topic of endless campfire debate; suffice to say you don’t want to face a charging grizzly with a .243 or .25 caliber rifle. In the early 1980s, the Tongass National Forest did extensive testing of firearms for self-defense purposes only. Employees of state and federal agencies in Alaska typically use a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs, or a .375 H & H Magnum. These are not good choices for an elk hunter in Wyoming. But the Tongass National Forest did venture an opinion that a .30/06 and up was a reasonable choice for hunters. With today’s bullets, a 7 X 57 Mauser and up would do. In my opinion. Let the debate begin.
4.) Anytime you find youself within 100 yards of a grizzly, ready your weapon. Assume you’re within the bear’s “personal space,” which forces the bear to make a decision: fight or flee? Be aware that most charges occur when people startle at grizzly at 55 yards or less. If the bear charges, it goes from zero to 44 feet per second in a heartbeat. You don’t have much time to react. You’d better be ready.
5.) You’ll often read about a bear that attacked or charged “without warning.” Don’t expect a warning. During a typical surprise encounter, the bear simply charges. Boom. No time for warnings. In a situation like Stephen Westmoreland faced where the bear seems to be mulling things over, the bear isn’t going to warn you it’s about to charge by growling, or raising its hackles like a dog, or laying its ears back. One moment it’s just standing there on all fours with its ears up, watching you, the next moment it’s a blur charging toward you with head down, mouth open, ears back.
6.) You’d be foolish to assume a charging bear is “bluffing.” All charges are real. If you stand still, bears sometimes stop short of making contact because your body language says, “Touch me and it will cost you.”
7.) When should you shoot? It’s a real dilemma. The grizzly Mr. Westmoreland shot might have whirled and fled, or it might have charged, which makes it far more difficult to hit and kill. Plus, the bear might stop 30 yards away, 15 yards away, 2 yards away, or anywhere in between. In Bear Attacks: Their Causes And Avoidance, biologist Stephen Herrero says to shoot at a charging grizzly at 100 to 50 feet or less. In the Bear Encounter Survival Guide, British Columbia hunting guide James Gary Shelton recommends shooting at 25 yards. In Backcountry Bear Basics, I recommend shooting when the charging bear is 5 to 7 yards away. Whether you shoot at 33 yards or 5 yards, you’re only gonna have time for one shot if you’re using a bolt-action rifle—hold off as long as you can, and then make your one shot count. You should decide at what distance you’ll shoot before you ever go afield. If you don’t have a set distance in mind, you’ll panic when facing a charging bear. You’ll blast away too soon, or you’ll freeze and fire a wild shot at the last second.
8.) Do not fire a warning shot. They rarely have the desired effect. They may even provoke a charge, and then you probably won’t have time to get off a shot at the bear. There’s a risk of short-stroking your rifle.
9.) Don’t squint one eye and “scope” the bear. All you’ll see is a blur of brown fur approaching at terrifying speed. Practice shooting with both eyes open. Focus on your sights/crosshairs. In panic situations, most people only see their attacker.
10.) Aim just below the tip of the bear’s nose at the center of its chest.
11.) Practice, practice, practice using your rifle until your moves are instinctive.

Dave Smith (counterbart) is the author of Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters

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  1. Oh for heavens sake Dave, get off the soapbox!

    The guy killed a grizzly bear just shy of a half a football field away. It died five feet from the moose gut pile it was feeding on when he first saw it. Do you actually believe it may have been “charging”? Either that bear was the slowest attacking grizzly in all of creation or the “hunter” was the fastest shot that has ever lived!

    The guy KNEW the gut pile was there (you can be sure he also saw bear sign around it when he walked by earlier in the morning). I know you’ve written a book or two on how to avoid griz,. Too freakin’ bads Westmoreland hadn’t read it because you yourself caution about such things. Otherwise he would have stayed clear of the gut pile, gotten his buddy’s deer and a young female girz would still be around to extend her genes.

    Of course the “hunter” should have his day in court! He illegally killed a game animal without a licenses to do so – and in a closed season. Your placing some kind of blame on the National Park Service and Wyoming Game and fish is very much miss directed. People, all people including those who call themselves “hunters”, who venture into grizzly country have an obligation to learn about the risks they face and how to avoid them. They need to buy your book. (Gad, did I really say that?)

    Frankly, the only thing I agree with you on is the thoughts you express in your book. Maybe, Wyo G&F;should give it to every big game license holder? I vote for that!

    The bottom line is Westmorland screwed up so let’s allow him and the “system to work it out. We all make mistakes…! Like the rest of us I’ll be he is willing to pay for is!

  2. If the dude had done his homework he would have known of “the grizzly” in the area.

    I can not tell you how much we all hate you.. for what you have done to her (615), as there are many of us whom have sat closer to one of her “dinner tables” while she dined upon Elk than you did at her.. last fine dining of Moose meat.

    If she broke through your kitchen door while you where dining upon your finest game from your latest hunt, you could have had the right to “shoot first” and assess the situation later.

    A half a football field away she was…couldn’t you have punted?
    Were you looking for a new bear rug?

    What the heck were ya thinking? You could have observed so much if you would have not been in that Elmer Fudd mode of “A Huntin We Will DDDo.

    If you’re that paranoid/threatened of animals 40 yards away,
    Go sit on the porch!

  3. If you are going to hunt, learn the rules, if you go into back country, learn the rules. This bear should not have been killed. The person (hunter) either has no idea what he is doing, or he just does not care. When a hunting license is issued to anyone a guide book and rule book should be given to them first, read, then a test. If they pass the test they get the license, if not, no license! I hope this man chooses to put his rifle away, and stays out of the back country, even if he grew up in the area, he has no idea what he is doing. I pray for the bear, it is a great loss….

  4. alarmist retard? that’s pretty crude buddy. not only does it demean people with special needs but it makes you look like a frustrated 7th grader. so wrong.

  5. The blog does a great job of expressing the difficulty of balancing hunter safety, bear safety, and logistical realities. The comments, not so much.

  6. So Counterbart, I appreciate that your thoughts are well thought out, based upon recognized experts such as yourself and all that. However, when one shakes it all down what you have said, and what the NRA Bubbas keep on saying is, “If you see a grizzly bear within 120 feet of you, regardless of what the bear is doing, it is best if you immediately shot it dead on the spot. That is what this fool Westmoran did. Don’t think – just shoot.

    OK, then how ‘bout stretching that 120 feet out to 300’ – just to be safe?

  7. Now wait a minute. Westmorland see a small grizzly on a gut pile that he admitted seeing earlier that day. The bear is 120 feet away. The bear stands to look at him, then drops to all fours and Westmorland IMEDDIATELY shoots it two times. At the second shot it depart this life – 5 feet from where he first saw it. There was no indication the bear was “charging” or making any intimidating movements towards Westmorland. It simple went to all fours and – bang you’re dead! The guy panicked, and in a knee jerk moment killed the bear.

    Remember too this was a sub-adult, female grizzly. She had left her mom (the famous Bear 399) only three months before. In many aspects she was still a baby. Surely, she could inflict bodily harm, but she was not a big, blood thirsty, super confident bear some would like us to think. She was a young bear that had been run off along with her mother, brother and sister by a few loud, over head gun shots. In all likelihood had Westmorland shot in the air she would have run far, far away. OR, he would certainly of had the chance to shoot her again, and again. The guy panicked!

    So I go back to my previous observation – It is the OK to shoot any bear one sees within 120 feet of you regardless of what if any “attack” posture it may or may not take. If you see a bear – KILL IT! This is what you are saying!

  8. Carry bear spray, and know how and when to use it. It is given out at the Jackson Wyoming Game & Fish office – for free. It is advocated by the biologists and managers at every gov’t wildlife office. Everyone is aware of this option.

    “the result of a person using a gun is likely to create a wounded and angrier bear. The latter scenario most likely leads to more severe attacks” No one has discredited this argument, and to do so now would discredit your argument as you source this material.

    I did not read any real advocacy in your article for bear spray, which is arguably the safest and most effective option for a charging bear. Note charging, not a non-charging bear at 40 yards. Nor do I see any advocacy in the comments for this from either ‘side.’

    Not carrying this cheap to free piece of equipment can leave a hunter with less effective, ethical and often illegal options.