A female grizzly bear and its two cubs-of-the-year were shot and killed by bear managers Friday after they returned to the meadow in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area where a hunter was fatally mauled earlier in the week.

“We are confident that these are the bears” that attacked and killed Timothy Hilston, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Servheen made the decision to kill the bears.

Hilston, 51, was alone, gutting an elk Tuesday morning when the 350-pound female and her two 125-pound cubs followed the elk’s blood trail across the meadow to the edge of an open pine forest. He probably did not see the grizzly until the moment of the attack, Servheen said.

Hilston never had a chance to reach for his gun and was not carrying bear-deterring pepper spray. His body was found Wednesday morning about 130 yards from the elk. He was the first hunter killed by a grizzly bear since 1956, when a man was killed by a wounded bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

“This type of aggression by a bear is very uncommon,” said Servheen. “Ninety-nine percent of all grizzlies avoid humans. The fact that this bear attacked someone while he was on an elk carcass is unacceptable. That is unnatural aggression.”

It is natural and expected for a grizzly bear to defend its young or to attack during a surprise encounter, he said. It is unnatural for a bear to approach a person, and even more so to attack.

“The safety of people is primary here,” Servheen said. “We can’t allow mother bears to teach their young to be aggressive to people.”

The cubs were killed both because they likely would not have survived the winter without their mother and because they had been taught a deadly lesson. “A young bear is a mirror of its mother,” Servheen said. “If their mother seeks out gut piles and shows aggression toward humans, they will probably do that as well.

“Dealing with this bear is a good thing because it will help all bears,” he said. “We do not protect bears, we manage bears. And a bear that exhibits unnatural aggression is not good for the population. This was a very unusual thing, for a grizzly to do this.”

“Do we like to kill grizzly bears? No,” said Bill Thomas, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Was this absolutely necessary? Yes it was. We feel very confident that these are the bears.”

Early Thursday morning, bear managers set a culvert trap near the site of the attack. Within hours, a grizzly pushed against the trap, but did not venture inside. The bear left a paw print later matched to the female grizzly.

Late Thursday, three snare traps were also set. Overnight, the female grizzly and one of the cubs stepped into snares. The other cub stayed close by.

Because the bears came back to the meadow even after game wardens removed the elk carcass was further evidence of their guilt in the attack, Servheen said. The sow grizzly came back looking for another meal from the elk.

The female and cubs had, in fact, made a practice of feeding on gut piles, he said. Another group of hunters scared them off an elk a week ago, and reported the sighting to wardens at a game check station in Bonner.

“There were six of us total who went back to retrieve the elk,” said Dan Holshue, one of the hunters who encountered the grizzlies last Saturday. “ We heard crashing through the trees and saw three sets of tracks, definitely those of an adult and two cubs. About half of the gut pile had been eaten, and they had peeled the hair off the rib cage and started to eat on the ribs.”

Holshue, an investigator at the State Crime Lab in Missoula, said a friend shot the elk about four miles east of the Blackfoot-Clearwater game range. As soon as he heard about the hunter’s mauling, he knew it was probably the same bears.

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“There were a lot more of us when we came across those bears,” Holshue said. “We were making a lot of noise and commotion. But we still didn’t waste any time getting the elk loaded and out of the area. We had seen several sets of grizzly tracks that day.”

Game managers will reopen the Blackfoot-Clearwater to hunters on Saturday, but warned that there are other grizzly bears in the area. All hunters, Thomas said, should carry pepper spray and no one should hunt alone.

Fifty hunters have permits to hunt elk in the wildlife management area.

The grizzly killed on Friday was 13 to 15 years old and had spent its life in the upper Blackfoot Valley, Servheen said. It denned in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and was caught once before by game managers — accidentally, in 1999, while they were looking for a male grizzly that had killed livestock on a ranch near Ovando.

Servheen said there is no way to know exactly what happened on Tuesday morning. The cubs may have bounded across the meadow to the elk, unaware that the hunter was still on the animal. Maybe they cried out to their mother. Maybe she attacked in response.

“Everything is total speculation,” he said. “I suspect it had something to do with the cubs. They probably ran on ahead. The whole thing was probably very quick, a matter of seconds.”

With more than 500 grizzlies in the northern Rockies, Friday’s deaths won’t set back efforts to recover the species, Servheen said. And it shouldn’t turn public opinion against the animals, he said.

“Knowledgeable people will put this event into context,” he said. “These things are extremely rare. We never want this to happen, though. Every human death is unfortunate. We have great sympathy for Timothy Hilston’ s family. It is most unfortunate that this happened, but also very unlikely that it will happen again anytime soon.”

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or sdevlin@missoulian.com.

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