Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has joined a probe into the death of a researcher killed by a bear in the Teton Wilderness and is investigating Adam Stewart’s demise as a workplace fatality.
Searchers found Stewart’s body Sept. 12, on the fifth day of searching in Cub Creek, just north of Togwotee Pass in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Preliminary investigations reveal he died of blunt force trauma, likely a bear bite.
Stewart was an employee of Nature’s Capital, an Idaho company that conducts environmental surveys, and working under a U.S. Forest Service contract at the time he went into the roadless area. Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said Friday the contract for a vegetation survey Stewart was doing was arranged through the agency’s regional office in Ogden, Utah.
Because he was working at the time of his death, Wyoming OSHA opened a case.
“It is under OSHA jurisdiction, we are involved in the investigation,” said Hayley McKee, a spokeswoman with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, the state agency that oversees OSHA operations. The agency considers the death a workplace fatality, she said.
“This is definitely a unique situation,” she said. “We’re going to look at some of the industry standards, if those were followed.”
A review of some federal and state agencies that operate in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem shows a hodgepodge of policies and few written standards regarding protecting employees in bear country. Among employers’ responsibilities, McKee said, is training workers and providing them with personal protective equipment such as hard hats or harnesses for construction.
In 2009, for example, OSHA investigated the death of a ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. She fell skiing an out-of-bounds couloir and died after hitting her head. She was not wearing a helmet.
As a result of an “informal settlement” with OSHA, the resort began requiring ski patrollers to wear helmets in some instances. The company subsequently expanded that requirement and today patrollers wear helmets routinely.
OSHA questions to be answered include “was the employee properly prepared,” McKee said. “OSHA will be looking into whether or not he was provided with the proper protection.”
Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan, who is investigating the incident along with other agencies, said in an email Friday he doesn’t know of any of the search-and-recovery team finding bear pepper spray among Stewart’s possessions. Carrying bear pepper spray is widely encouraged in grizzly country and required of some workers and hunters. Wyoming Game and Fish said no firearm was found, either.
The spray is a pressurized solution that includes oleoresin capsicum — red hot pepper — that can be sprayed in a fog. A small canister with a trigger contains it and users commonly wear it in a holster on the hip.
Investigators found both black and grizzly hairs on Stewart’s remains. They haven’t said what species killed the researcher, but McAuslan told the Associated Press he suspects a grizzly bear.
Searchers found Stewart’s remains near two deer carcasses that bears had been feeding on, Wyoming Game and Fish said.
Latest details from the investigation
Meantime, a Wyoming Game and Fish official said Monday the agency is trying to trap or snare bears in the Cub Creek drainage as a result Stewart’s death.
“We went back in – our large carnivore team did,” said Jason Hunter, Lander regional wildlife supervisor with the agency. “They are attempting to catch a bear or bears in the area.”
Game and Fish doesn’t have a suspect bear it is pursuing, he said.
“We don’t have any bear to target,” Hunter said. “It’s just to see what’s in there and gather more information.”
The team began its work last week and has been riding in by horseback regularly.
“They’re going back to the site every day,” he said. “All the trailheads are signed (for) trapping activity.”
Hunter said he heard from search-and-rescue that animals may have consumed part of Stewart. “It wouldn’t be surprising,” he said, given the length of time the researcher was missing. He discounted the possibility, however, that the attack was a predatory one in which a bear saw Stewart as food. “All indications really point to a surprise encounter,” he said.
Hunter also said it is unlikely that a grizzly bear that bit a bow hunter north of Dubois over the weekend was tied to Stewart’s death. A pair of bow hunters successfully deployed pepper spray in the incident and one received a “very minor injury,” when he was bitten.
“We have absolutely no reason to believe there was anything similar between the two (encounters),” Hunter said. The incidents were miles apart, he said. The bear in the most recent incident was a sow with two cubs.
“The hunters acted like we would ask folks to,” he said, by carrying bear pepper spray and not traveling alone.
Company says it requires bear spray
Stewart’s employer, Nature’s Capital, requires employees to carry bear pepper spray in grizzly country, said Steven Rust, the company’s principal and senior ecologist. Stewart would have had a range of high-tech equipment, including a satellite phone, GPS unit and bear deterrent, he said.
“Included in that, there should be a bear spray canister,” Rust said. “The company provides that either through direct purchase or by reimbursing employees.”
Whether Stewart had bear pepper spray, took it with him on his overnight journey into the wilderness, or took it along on the fatal excursion from his camp to a study plot he was supposed to examine is uncertain. McAuslan said he doesn’t know of a canister being recovered but his investigation is ongoing.
Nature’s Capital’s Rust said he wonders about the circumstances, too.
“That’s one thing that we’re waiting for from the sheriff,” Rust said, “exactly what equipment and information was recovered from the incident.”
Stewart had worked for the company for “a very short time,” Rust said, and the survey he was undertaking was of a long-term vegetation-monitoring plot.
“We had several staff training sessions regarding bear awareness and use of bear spray,” Rust said. “One particular discussion was regarding recent research regarding the effectiveness of bear spray in bear-contact incidences.”
(The Interagency Grizzly Bar Committee distributes this video on its website showing how to use bear pepper spray.)
Research shows the spray more effective than firearms in protecting people from grizzly bear attacks, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet states. Grizzly bears are protected by the Endangered Species Act and it is illegal to kill one without permission, except in cases of self-defense.
Since 2010 there have been four fatal bear attacks in the Yellowstone ecosystem — three on day hikers and one on a camper. The Cub Creek drainage where Stewart was working is in core grizzly habitat and within a day’s hike of a trailhead at Brooks Lake. He was found three miles north of his camp.
The grizzly population “continues to do very, very well in the State of Wyoming,” Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott told the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on Friday. Aerial surveys show “record numbers of bears,” he said, adding “we continue to see expanded distribution in abundance and geography.”
State and federal managers will propose to end federal Endangered Species Act protections by 2015, he said. He did not address the incident in Cub Creek.
Forest mum on contractor requirements
The Bridger-Teton National Forest makes at least some workers carry bear pepper spray in the backcountry, spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said. “For employees, we require it,” she said.
But the forest won’t say whether its contractors, or those contracted through the agency’s regional office in Ogden, Utah, are also required to carry spray.
“They’re citing that as part of the investigation,” Cernicek said. “Until this investigation is done, I can’t comment on what’s required in a contract or not in a contract.”
Like OSHA, the Forest Service will investigate, she said.
“There will be a Board of Review who will produce a report reconstructing the incident as much as possible and making any appropriate conclusions on the cause,” Cernicek said in an email. “This board will rely on information from various sources and will convene when this information is complete and available.”
Nearby Grand Teton National Park heavily promotes bear safety among its workers, contractors and volunteers, but without a written requirement to carry bear pepper spray, spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “We just don’t have a document that lines that out,” she said.
Nevertheless, the park briefs seasonal employees and concession workers every year on bear safety, and some contract workers also must follow extra safety rules. In one instance, she said, scientists researching crickets and working at night along the Snake River were required to go out in pairs. Their research permit included an outline of standard ecosystem grizzly bear precautions, including a recommendation to carry bear pepper spray, Skaggs said.
Among park employees, “every division either highly recommends it or requires it,” Skaggs said. During a “safety day” at the beginning of summer, employees rotate through various stations that coach about safety practices in the woods.
“One of them is always bears,” said Skaggs. “People practice with (inert) bear spray.”
Grand Teton relies heavily on radio contact to check up on employees in the field, she said. Anyone who works away from developed areas is required to check in via radio on a regular basis, usually on the order of two to three times a day. Grand Teton took care to review its practices after ranger Jeff Christensen disappeared while on patrol in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2005, Skaggs said. Searchers initially couldn’t find him but a hiker eventually discovered his body.
He fell, hit his head, but was able to bandage his wound with a T-shirt. He didn’t use his radio to call for help. Investigators couldn’t determine whether radio batteries (the radio itself worked in the location) were at fault.
Grand Teton once dispatched a helicopter to check on a ranger who didn’t call in during a solo patrol, Skaggs said. In Yellowstone, two rangers have died while patrolling alone.
One, Ryan Weltman, died in a Shoshone Lake boating mishap in 1994, and another, Robert Mahn, in a snowmobiling accident that same year. Park geologist Rick Hutchinson and a companion were killed in a snow avalanche in 1997.
Yellowstone has radio checkup protocols for its backcountry rangers, spokesman Al Nash said. Yellowstone requires all backcountry workers to have bear pepper spray, he said.
“If they don’t have their own, we would provide it for them as part of their job,” he said. “It’s part of their personal protective equipment to work in this environment. Our job is to provide people the appropriate safety equipment for their duties.”
Yellowstone forwarded pages from a written, 2014 safety plan for the Center for Resources that states solo travel must be approved by a supervisor and that “bear spray must be carried by all personnel working in the backcountry or along park roadways where wildlife may be encountered.” Spray is available from the Mammoth Supply Center, it says.
Spray optional for Game & Fish workers
When snaring and tranquilizing a grizzly bear, Wyoming Game and Fish personnel have been observed packing a 12-gauge shotgun — loaded for bear. But there’s not a policy that requires employees to carry bear spray while in bear country, spokesman Mark Gocke said. Most workers do so anyway, he said.
“It’s pretty routine for us that whenever we’re in bear country we are wearing it, carrying it,” Gocke said. “It is made available for all employees who go into bear country.”
Bear pepper spray is highly recommended by members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a group of experts in charge of the threatened species. Not only does it protect people more effectively than firearms, but it also saves bears.
For its annual elk reduction program, also known as the park hunt, Grand Teton requires all hunters to carry bear pepper spray. Hunters shot a grizzly bear along the Snake River on Thanksgiving Day, during the 2012 hunt, after they said it charged them and pepper spray didn’t turn it back.
One member of the party discharged bear pepper spray at the advancing 534-pound grizzly, according to the hunters’ account. Investigators later found an elk carcass nearby and also determined the bear pepper spray had an expiration date nine years before the incident.
Teton County prosecuting attorney brought charges against a different hunter who shot a grizzly bear in 2009, claiming self-defense. Part of the case, which convicted Stephen Westmoreland of taking a bear without a license, centered on the fact that he was not carrying bear pepper spray.
Some ranchers who graze cattle or sheep on the Bridger-Teton National Forest face extra regulations if they operate in grizzly country, like along the Upper Green River where a shepherd was mauled by a grizzly in 2009. Today, that operation must have two shepherds, according to federal documents outlining grazing permit conditions.
Cowboys in the same area are not required to carry bear pepper spray — it’s only a recommended practice. The Bridger-Teton National Forest this spring wanted to require cowboys to carry the canisters.
In a “Biological Assessment” review of grazing operations along the upper Green, a Bridger-Teton biologist proposed requiring bear spray for workers. That document went to the. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was reviewing practices in anticipation of altering its opinion of what number and sex of grizzly bear losses the ecosystem population could sustain related to the grazing.
Ranchers were able to weigh in on the opinion, said Ann Belleman a biologist with Fish and Wildlife in Cheyenne. Ultimately, the bear-spray requirement was modified to a recommendation — at the Forest Service level, she said.
“It’s up to them (the Bridger-Teton) whether they recommend or require something,” Belleman said. “That’s their prerogative. That’s not something we would mandate.”
Remembering the man
While OSHA, the Bridger-Teton, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office and coroner continue assembling their information, reports and inquiries, people should remember Adam Stewart himself, said Rust, Nature’s Capital’s principal.
What Stewart was carrying — “that’s really a minor consideration in light of his passing,” Rust said. “Adam was very bright, very athletic and in very good physical condition.”
Stewart was 31, lived in Virgin, Utah, near Zion National Park, and had parents in Brentwood, Tennessee. Photographs on the SUIndependent website show him grinning in the backcountry. One shot shows him giving a thumbs-up in front of Squaretop Mountain at the headwaters of the Green River, a stone’s throw from Upper Green grazing allotments.
“He had lots of experience in a range of different outdoor activities,” Rust said. “He was an all-around tip-top guy. We’re very sad for his loss.”