Wyoming Game and Fish department staff discovered a dead grizzly bear in one of the agency’s baited traps early Sept. 30 – a first-of-its-kind capture-related fatality that nevertheless sparked dismay among conservations and other bear advocates.

A diagnostic report based on a necropsy obtained by WyoFile stated that the bear died after suffering capture myopathy, a condition during which animals become extremely exhausted. 

Trappers found the 326-pound, approximately 7-year-old male grizzly dead in a box trap at the Shoshone Lodge outside the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

Case coordinator Todd Cornish with the Wyoming State Veterinarian Laboratory found congestion in the lungs, swelling caused by blood leaking from vessels and “peripheral emphysema,” according to a summary of a necropsy performed in Laramie. He also noted “acute (skeletal) degenerative myopathy,” or exhaustion similar to what would be found from overheating.

Cornish also found damaged tissues that “suggest significant struggle in the culvert trap,” a diagnostic report reads. 

Game and Fish said the death was extremely rare, the first of its type witnessed in more than 1,573 box- or culvert-style trappings, according to an internal Game and Fish email obtained by WyoFile.

The incident mars an otherwise upbeat report that shows a reduction in grizzly conflicts and deaths last year.

Protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, Wyoming grizzlies are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with considerable help from and coordination with Wyoming Game and Fish Department. About 700 live in the core Yellowstone-Grand Teton area and surrounding national forests, but more dwell outside that zone as well.

The bear scarfed s’mores from the lodge site Sept. 26, according to Game and Fish records. It returned the next two nights and boldly approached people. 

Lodge personnel used a pickup truck to chase it off the third night it was on the site, a report said. Game and Fish set the baited box trap Sept 29 and caught the bear that night or early the next morning. Most first-offending bears are moved and set free.

A guest at the lodge during the incident questioned Game and Fish actions and investigation. Bob Nevens remains unsatisfied with the outcome of the incident, even after several conversations with state officials and reviews of lab reports.

Wildlife managers did not treat the incident nonchalantly, Game and Fish’s large carnivore section supervisor Dan Thompson said. Regardless of how many times wildlife managers catch and relocate grizzlies or handle other wildlife, “it’s always with absolute respect and ethics for that animal,” he said. “We dedicate our lives to taking care of wildlife.”

“Something doesn’t look right,” however, Nevens told WyoFile in a telephone interview from his home in Tennessee. He saw and photographed the box trap the day it was set and said there were no signs warning people to stay away from it.

Game and Fish notified the lodge and guests of the operation in advance and some of them watched trappers set up the capture device, Thompson said. “We warned them to stay away,” he said. “We made sure to talk to the lodge and the people who run the lodge,” employees and owners who are well versed in grizzly bear behavior, he said.

The next morning, Nevens learned that lodge employees saw the bear alive in the trap at about 1 a.m. Sept. 30, he said. The next morning the trap and bear were gone and he learned the animal had died.

“They didn’t take any statements,” he said of Game and Fish employees, based on the records he received and conversations with Game and Fish officials. Game and Fish did not follow “the basic 101 steps to ask what happened.”

“We did stop and talk to the wranglers — seven or eight of them — and let them know that we were pulling out now and had a unique situation,” Thompson said. Game and Fish checked the trap to ensure it was working correctly. Because the incident was unprecedented, Game and Fish decided to order a necropsy.

Nevens filed a records request with Game and Fish, receiving a diagnostic summary and some email exchanges among agency employees. One document was a working draft of talking points officials could use to explain the incident. Thompson circulated it to various involved parties “for consistency,” an email said.

The draft talking points said initial results of an investigation pointed to exertional hyperthermia/exertional myopathy.” Thompson recommended against distributing a news release “as that will likely just fuel an unnecessary discussion,” according to an email. (Thompson later talked at length with WyoFile about the incident.)

The talking points bothered Nevens because Thompson distributed them on Oct. 10, 20 days before examiners submitted the report on the necropsy. 

Officials appeared to be coordinating their stories, Nevens told WyoFile. He is “absolutely baffled” that a federally protected animal died in Game and Fish custody with what he said is scant record of what happened.

“It probably would have been better if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and did the necropsy,” said Kristin Combs, program director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. When an agency investigates its own operations, she said, “you wonder how much objectivity there is.”

Wyoming Game and Fish has a permit under the Endangered Species Act to capture grizzly bears, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Joe Szuszwalak wrote in an email. He did not respond directly to a question about a potential or perceived conflict of interest the state might have in probing its own activities.

Shoshone Lodge employees held a party the night the bear was trapped, Nevens said. “Did somebody provoke the bear [in the trap], cause it to stress?” he asked.

Trappers did not drug the grizzly during the incident, according to a capture report. The bear had no ear tags — an indication that it likely had not been captured before. It appeared healthy, although the lab report showed roundworm infestation, but not at the level it would affect the bear’s condition. A test of the bear’s brain did not detect rabies.

“It looks like our bear really got stressed out in the culvert trap,” Terry Creekmore, Game and Fish wildlife disease specialist, wrote other parties as he distributed the report. “High ambient temperatures can result in heat stress and exacerbate capture myopathy, but I doubt the night time temperature in early September was exceptionally warm.”

Trappers found snow on the ground when they arrived at the trap the morning of Sept. 30, Thompson told WyoFile.

The bear had fluid in his lungs and muscle changes “that indicate he died of capture myopathy,” Creekmore wrote. Likely secondary conditions including acidosis, electrolyte disturbances, shock and cardiovascular compromise, the lab report said.

Investigators examined 50 slides of samples from the bear’s brain, kidney, spleen, liver, esophagus, trachea, stomach, small intestine, colon, adrenal gland, thyroid gland, salivary gland, lymph nodes, testis, skin, bone, diaphragm, bladder, tongue, heart, eye, a membrane known as the third eyelid, and found no significant lesions. No underlying illnesses contributed to the bear’s death, documents stated.

“We looked into [whether there was] human intervention,” while the bear was in the trap, Thompson told WyoFile. “There appeared to be no foul play.”

Rumors that people were feeding the bear proved unfounded, he said. “We looked into those types of things,” he said. The lab report showed a gut containing about four pounds of chokecherries.

“There was fresh snow – there were no tracks around the trap,” Thompson said. “We have several investigative techniques where we can tell if somebody has tampered with the trap. To our knowledge nobody went up and tampered with the bear – nobody did anything to harass that bear while it was in the trap.”

A scientific paper documents exertional myopathy in a grizzly bear that died in Alberta, Canada in 2003, 10 days after it was captured by a leg-hold snare. Authors wrote that evidence suggested non-fatal exertional myopathy occurred in other bears captured by leg-hold. Such exhaustion “is not generally a cause of mortality.”

“We propose, however, occurrence of nonfatal [exertional myopathy] in grizzly bears after capture by leghold snare has potential implications for use of this capture method, including negative effects on wildlife welfare and research data,” authors wrote in an abstract of the paper.

Game and Fish did not employ a leghold snare in the Shoshone Lodge capture.

In talking with other bear managers, Thompson’s learned of one other case of capture myopathy in the U.S., he said. It happened with a black bear in the southwest. 

In the draft talking points, Thompson wrote that Game and Fish routinely evaluates and adapts capture strategies “for the ultimate safety of bears and humans.”

Lodge guest Nevens wrote WyoFile that he raised the issue in the hopes witnesses with other information might surface, that future trappings will be safe and that investigations will be thorough and transparent.

WyoFile did not receive a response to an email sent to the Lodge address.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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