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When An Off-Duty Game Warden Kills A Grizzly

After Mother Bear With Three Cubs Shot In Wyoming, Critics Wonder Why Hunter Didn't Use Bear Spray

The mother grizzly shot by an off-duty Wyoming game warden had three cubs with her and is no different from this foursome—Grizzly 399 and one of her three sets of triplets.  Photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen (
The mother grizzly shot by an off-duty Wyoming game warden had three cubs with her and is no different from this foursome—Grizzly 399 and one of her three sets of triplets. Photograph by Thomas D. Mangelsen (
We don’t yet know what Chris Queen was thinking when he pulled the trigger Oct. 25, 2017 and killed the mother grizzly northwest of Cody with one shot, orphaning her three cubs.

The easy question is why didn't the off-duty warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department use bear spray?

Automatically, the rhetorical defensive posture being staked out is this: “Well, whether he should have used bear spray or a gun to resolve the encounter doesn’t matter. He felt threatened and he’s alive. He fired in self-defense. You can’t judge him because you weren’t there.

This is precisely the kind of attitude, however, that worries large numbers of American citizens and wildlife conservationists who doubt the state of Wyoming’s ability to steward grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave bear management back to the states last summer after 42 years of Greater Yellowstone’s bear population being protected under the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming hopes to commence a sport hunt of grizzlies as early as 2018.

That this latest bear killing involves a Game and Fish field man and a sow with three cubs invites intense scrutiny. 

In 2013, a Game and Fish colleague of Queen’s, Luke Ellsbury who had been a state bear management specialist, also killed a grizzly east of Yellowstone National Park.  He claimed mistaken identity, unable to distinguish it from a black bear. Pleading guilty, Ellsbury was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution.

C. Lance Mathess, spokesman for the Park County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office, said the investigation into this latest griz shooting is ongoing. He issued this statement: “Warden Queen had bear spray on him. However, he also had his rifle in both hands and the attack happened so quick that he made the decision to discharge the rifle. He would have had to drop the rifle to deploy the bear spray and in his mind, there wasn’t sufficient time.”

Queen told authorities the sow bluff charged him, then backed off returning to her cubs and then suddenly raced toward him at top speed.

Doug Peacock, the Vietnam medic and renowned bear conservationist who makes his home in Paradise Valley, Mont.,wants to know more details about what the bear was communicating in her body language. Peacock is concerned about the message this incident sends, which is certain to be invoked by other hunters who shoot bears.

Wyoming has claimed it will be vigilant in promoting bear spray use, minimizing conflicts, protecting female bears, preventing mistaken identity, and selling a limited, tightly-regulated number of bear tags.

“This Game and Fish agent, by this incident, makes it look okay to shoot any bear, especially a productive female, and he needs to look less than noble in his apparent explanation that he was ‘forced to shoot,’” Peacock said. “The greatest threat to the survival of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies is simply killing them for any reason. That’s how we almost lost the population to begin with.” 

Grizzlies are slow to reproduce, he notes. The loss of sows that give birth to larger-sized litters of cubs can have huge rippling consequences. Wyoming officials have said they don't know what to do about the cubs. They would be hard to trap and if they are trapped they wouldn't be re-released to the wild, likely instead sent to a zoo or euthanized. If they are left to fend for themselves, they have a high probability of perishing.

What it means is that the shooting of one bear actually means the loss of four, plus reproductive potential extrapolated out over time.

Wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen of Jackson Hole says killing a sow with triplets, as Queen did, is not insignificant. He points to famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 who, as a 21-year-old, has 17 different bruins descended in her bloodline. However, about half are already dead, mostly from direct human causes.

Even in a population of bruins that the federal government and state agencies say is biologically "recovered", it doesn't take the loss of many female grizzlies to make the difference between a population that is rising or holding its own and one in decline.
Can you tell the difference between a black bear and grizzly? When a Wyoming off-duty game warden shot a grizzly in 2013, he claimed mistaken identity in his defense. Graphic courtesy Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks
Can you tell the difference between a black bear and grizzly? When a Wyoming off-duty game warden shot a grizzly in 2013, he claimed mistaken identity in his defense. Graphic courtesy Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

Kent Nelson, founder of Jackson-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, says that for decades Wyoming state government has treated grizzlies as non-revenue-generating management burdens.  Seldom, almost never, has the state touted the fact that grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone are keystones for commerce in a $1 billion annual nature-tourism economy, with "non-consumptive" bear and wolf watching being marquee attractions.

Rooted in a budgetary system that does not reflect changing times—fewer people in America hunt—Game and Fish relies on revenues generated from selling licenses, i.e. monetizing wildlife more on its harvestable value. It has also fueled a mindset that paints meat-eating wildlife—grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions—as competitors to hunters instead of as essential pieces in ecological systems.

“Game and Fish is predisposed against grizzlies and wolves because all of their institutional incentives favor more abundant game animals that can be hunted in large numbers. Selling elk and deer licenses is their bread and butter, the more the merrier,” Nelson said.  “Large predators not only allegedly cut into their revenue stream, they reduce the return on the investments they make to ensure a surplus of huntable animals.”

Conservationists worry that many hunters will shoot grizzlies and claim mistaken identity with black bears now that grizzlies are no longer federally protected—and there is a widespread public belief that penalties for killing grizzlies will be more lenient in cases handled by state courts.  Is it true? Time will tell.

Ellsbury invoked mistaken identity. If an experienced Game and Fish biologist has difficulty telling the difference between a grizzly and black bear, what about average hunters or those coming from other parts of the country?

At the time of Ellsbury’s sentencing in October 2014, he told the court: “I deal with the public a lot, and I deal with them with this very situation [investigating illegal killing of wildlife]. It’s hard to look people in the eye knowing that I made the mistake that I tell people day-in and day-out not to make.”

Greater Yellowstone, in 1894, became the birthplace of one of the nation’s toughest wildlife protection laws—the Lacey Act, passed to address a rash of egregious poaching incidents occurring inside Yellowstone National Park and carried out by defiant locals in the region who resented the presence of the federal government.

One of the most notorious was Edgar Howell of Cooke City, Montana, located just outside Yellowstone’s northeastern entrance. Howell was caught killing Yellowstone bison at a time when just a few hundred were in the park, survivors of a campaign of annihilation that nearly left bison extinct.

Still there are people among us, and I’ve encountered a few of them, who do not respect public wildlife, who rationalize the poaching of animals such as grizzlies and wolves, who falsely believe that by being notorious outlaws, whether practicing shoot, shovel and shut-up, or blowing away lobos or even bald eagles, they are being macho or heroic. 

In 1995, Chad McKittrick of Red Lodge, Montana was charged and convicted for killing a famous Yellowstone research wolf—Wolf No. 10. He claimed that, while out on a spring black bear hunt, he mistakenly took the radio-collared wolf for a dog or coyote. He tried to dispose of the carcass but not before he skinned off the hide and brought it back to his home as a memento. One local rancher told CBS News that McKittrick should be given a medal, as a hero, instead of prosecuted as a villain.

This is the kind of rural sentiment that game wardens confront every day and whether they sympathize with it is anyone's guess.

A game warden, within wildlife conservation circles, is one of the most important jobs in civil service. Ellsbury nobly took responsibility for his actions and his words spoke to the profound sense of public shame he felt.

Reporter C.J. Baker penned a story for The Powell Tribune about the Ellsbury case and he interviewed Dan Thompson, Game and Fish Large Carnivore section supervisor, who appeared as a witness. He said that “because of the nature of the incident”—killing of a grizzly—“we hold our people [Game and Fish employees] to a higher level of standard.”

Queen, too, has investigated and busted poachers. Like Ellsbury, he’s involved with wildlife management because he loves the work. And, like his colleague and repeating Thompson’s assessment, he ought to know he should be held to a higher standard. 
Grizzly mother and cubs, photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (
Grizzly mother and cubs, photo by Thomas D. Mangelsen (
Jackson Hole attorney Deidre Bainbridge, a wildlife advocate, calls the incident “very disturbing—particularly so at this pivotal time when Game and Fish assumes the responsibility for managing this fragile species.”

Bainbridge wonders if Queen adhered to the principles laid out in his own department’s “Bear Wise” program. She says the burden in proving self-defense resides with the hunter.

“In truth self-defense is not automatically justified. It is first invoked as defense to a possible crime—the illegal take—and it must be proven. Would a reasonable man in a similar circumstance have feared imminent mortal injury or would he have used bear spray?” she asks.

So would bear spray have worked? “We don’t know but I don’t give the warden the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “He should know how to behave in bear country to protect the bear, especially one with three cubs.”

Earlier this autumn, Game and Fish gave away 100 free cans of bear spray in Cody and they went fast when offered.  Agency personnel have said that, as part of their public relations effort to prove they are up to the challenge of encouraging hunters to be responsible in the woods, carrying bear spray is important.

Chuck Bartlebaugh, who heads a bear spray education program called Be Bear Aware, says it’s easy to speculate on what Queen should or shouldn't have done.

To him, given the circumstances, it sounds like Queen would have had enough time to deploy bear spray. “It sure doesn’t look good when a state guy who is out hunting and should be modeling public behavior for how to non-lethally resolve human-grizzly encounters kills the bear.”

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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