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Bear attacks, kills camper near Ovando

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OVANDO — Armed game wardens in a helicopter searched every creek radiating from the vicinity of a campground where a grizzly bear attacked and killed a bicycle camper before dawn Tuesday.

Powell County Sheriff Gavin Roselles said the camper, who has not been identified, was attacked about 3:30 a.m. at a campground in the small community on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the Blackfoot River.

Other campers in the area called 911 and members of the Ovando and Helmville quick response units attempted to revive the victim.

Roselles said someone at the scene used bear spray, and that the bear left the area before rescuers arrived. It was also suspected of raiding a chicken coop the same night it entered the campground, and may have had encounters with other campers before the attack.

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks officers were assisting deputies in searching for the bear and controlling the incident scene. The agency has deployed a Wildlife Human Attack Response Team comprised of game wardens, biologists and wildlife conflict specialists to help track and capture the bear. 

They have set five culvert traps for the bear in and around Ovando, with two bear specialists on guard all night if activity occurs.

Spokesman Greg Lemon said the incident was uncommon, and that the bear would be killed when found.

"This isn’t normal bear behavior, and it's the kind we want to address right away," Lemon said. "Most of the time when we have grizzly-human encounters that result in injury, most of the time the bear is doing normal bear stuff — protecting food resources, protecting cubs or a surprise encounter. This doesn’t really apply in this situation, where somebody was camping at night. We have a bear roaming around town, that had already hit a chicken coop, so our response is different than if it was normal bear behavior."

Deputies and local volunteer firefighters blocked most of the entrances to central Ovando Tuesday morning as law enforcement officers studied the scene and patrolled for the bear.

Around noon, a FWP helicopter started systematically scanning the creek and river drainages north and south of the 100-person community. Grizzly bears typically bed down in shady areas during the hottest part of the day. 

Searchers planned to fly again Tuesday evening when cooler temperatures would make their infrared sensors more effective. Lemon said another flight was scheduled for dawn Wednesday morning if the evening flight is unproductive.

Roselles expected the search to concentrate on the Ovando area, and his officers had alerted campers in nearby sites to be aware of the incident, he said. No public campgrounds have been closed because of the incident.

"We don’t anticipate threats to other people in the area," Roselles said. "We’re not encouraging people to come into the area.”

Ovando is a popular resting point for bicycle tourists traveling Highway 200 across the Continental Divide. A large number of bicyclists had stopped there over the Fourth of July weekend. 

The victim was part of a group of long-distance bicycle tourists camping at a popular waypoint for people traveling along the Continental Divide. On Tuesday afternoon, many of those bikers gathered at Trixi's Antler Saloon, busy rethinking their plans for the next stop.

"I think we'll be OK going north," said Jim Drake of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who 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."

Another group of four bicyclists were searching for hotel rooms with their phones, with little luck. Many were coming from Lincoln, Seeley Lake or Missoula and just hearing about the incident at their lunch break.

"We're riding out of the feeding zone," said one man who declined to give his name. "This has really changed the trip."

About 1,000 grizzly bears and many more black bears inhabit the mountains and river drainages of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — a recovery area for grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states. It extends from Glacier National Park on the Canadian border south to Ovando and just north of Missoula and Helena.

Grizzly bears are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. A major part of the recovery effort involves keeping people’s food, pets and livestock from coming into contact with bears, which can habituate bears to seek out those rewards.

“We have not had much grizzly conflict in Ovando so far this year,” Lemon said. “In the past, we’ve had bears come into town. A few years ago we had two subadult bears that got into trash cans and caused problems. We’ve worked in the past on bear conflicts and to secure attractants. It’s not out of the ordinary to have a bear in the Ovando area get into attractants.”

Grizzly bears involved in attacks on humans are killed if they are considered a continued public safety threat. But bears involved in non-fatal attacks are often spared in the cases of surprise encounters or if they are protecting their young.

In April, a backcountry guide was killed by a grizzly bear while fishing along the Yellowstone National Park border in southwestern Montana. In 2016, an off-duty U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer was fatally mauled in the region after he collided with a grizzly while mountain biking in the Flathead National Forest.

Travelers continued pouring in and out of the Trixi's parking lot all Tuesday, exchanging details and updates about the incident. Inside, one bicyclist encouraged another to "stay safe out there" as the men finished their hamburgers. Above them across the bar was a large photo of Alaskan brown bears feeding on salmon.

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Two steel culvert traps, each big enough to hold a riding lawnmower, sit in the campground where the tents used to be. Signs on the trees warn “Closed: Bear management action in progress.”

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