The National Park Service this week released a detailed report of a fatal grizzly bear attack this summer at Yellowstone National Park, providing chilling details of the vicious mauling, which might have been avoided if the 58-year-old victim and his wife had reacted differently to the sight of the approaching bear.
The July 6 attack near the Wapiti Lake Trailhead on the east side of the park in Wyoming killed Brian Matayoshi, who was mauled by a female bear just 5 yards from where his terrified wife lay hidden behind a fallen tree. The incident was the first fatal attack by a grizzly bear inside the park in 25 years.
When Brian Matayoshi and his wife, Marylyn, spotted the female bear and her two cubs on the trail 100 yards away, they began running away and yelling for help, likely prompting the bear to chase them, according to the report conducted by a seven-member investigative team that included federal and state officials from the Park Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.
The Park Service encourages people who are approached by grizzly bears to slowly walk away, and if the bear charges, to lie motionless and face down. Indeed, the couple passed signs on the trail warning of bear activity in the area, including one sign recommending that "if a bear charges stand still, do not run," according to the interagency report.
"What possibly began as an attempt by the bear to assess the Matayoshis' activities became a sustained pursuit of them as they fled running and yelling on the trail," the panel found.
The report adds, "In addition to the unfortunate circumstance of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a possible contributing factor to the chase that ensued was that the victims ran from the bear while screaming and yelling."
Marylyn Matayoshi likely saved her life, the report states, by huddling face down behind the fallen tree. "After mauling Mr. Matayoshi, the bear walked over to her, lifted her by her daypack, and then left the area," according to the report. "Mrs. Matayoshi received no injuries."
The bear involved in the attack "had no known history of conflicts with humans," and was not captured and removed from the park after the attack "due to the fact that the encounter was characteristic of a surprise encounter," according to the report, which NPS is required to conduct after all fatal bear attacks.
Re-evaluation of bear policy
The report comes as grizzly bear populations in the West are growing and the bears are expanding their range to locations where they haven't been seen in decades, in part because grizzlies are a federally protected species. Wyoming currently supports about 600 grizzlies, up from 224 in 1975, when the animal was first placed on the endangered species list (Land Letter, July 7).
Though the July incident was the first fatal attack at Yellowstone since 1986, a second deadly bear attack occurred in the park less than two months later.
In that incident, which is still under investigation and occurred on a trail only 8 miles away from where Brian Matayoshi was mauled, a 59-year-old Michigan man was found dead by two hikers Aug. 26 on the Mary Mountain trail. An autopsy confirmed that the man died from injuries sustained in a grizzly bear attack, said Al Nash, a Yellowstone National Park spokesman.
The two incidents have caused Yellowstone officials to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the park's efforts to educate people about the dangers of grizzly bear encounters, and what they should do if a bear charges at them, Nash said.
"In light of the two incidents we've had here this year, we're reviewing our existing education efforts and visitor outreach to see if we might improve upon our existing efforts to help visitors understand how to minimize risk while visiting in a place with such abundant and varied wildlife," Nash said. "One of the wonderful things about Yellowstone is the opportunity to view a variety of wildlife species. However, we also recognize many visitors have limited experience with wildlife and wildlife behavior."
The tragic tale of Brian and Marylyn Matayoshi began early on the morning of July 6 when the couple began a leisurely hike on the Wapiti Lake Trailhead, according to the report.
About 90 minutes into the hike, the couple met a solitary hiker who pointed out a female bear and her two cubs in a meadow about 500 yards off the trail, and the two stopped to photograph the grizzly bear that would soon attack them.
Eerily, the investigative report includes a photo of the bear with her cubs that Marylyn Matayoshi took roughly 20 minutes before the attack.
After taking photos, the couple continued walking east along the trail toward Ribbon Lake for about a half-mile. But they decided to turn back, according to the report, because they were bothered by a large accumulation of mosquitoes.
As they walked back along the trail, they saw that the bear and her cubs had moved toward the trail and were now only about 100 yards away from them. The couple began to walk away in the opposite direction, but Marylyn told investigators that as they were doing so, the female bear "started coming at us and Brian said, 'Run,'" according to the report.
The couple ran an estimated 173 yards before the bear caught Brian Matayoshi. Marylyn Matayoshi told investigators that after she jumped behind a fallen tree, she "heard her husband yell and she turned around to see the female bear 'hit him.'" She also said that "the cubs were running just behind their mother and they were growling."
After a few seconds, the bear spotted Marylyn hiding behind the fallen tree and walked over and picked her up by her backpack before dropping her. After the bear left, Marylyn ran to her husband and used a jacket as a tourniquet to stem bleeding from his injuries, but to no avail.
"He was unresponsive and apparently dead when she reached him," according to the report.
Marylyn tried calling 911 on her cellphone 21 times, but could not get a signal in the remote area, according to the report. Another nearby hiker who said he heard the bear roar and Marylyn yelling for help was able to get through on his cellphone to Yellowstone Park Dispatch to request help.
No autopsy was performed of Brian Matayoshi, according to the report, but two factors contributed to his death.
The first was a large bruise on his forehead where the bear hit him, knocking him to the ground. In addition, the bear bit him on the right leg above his knee, opening a gash in his femoral artery "causing extensive blood loss," according to the report.
"Cause of death was assumed to be a combination of blunt force trauma and blood loss associated with the femoral artery injury," according to the report. "His head wound may have contributed to the cause of death but without an autopsy, it was impossible to confirm this."
Nash said an autopsy was not conducted because it was clear that Brian Matayoshi's wounds were caused by the bear.
Click here to read the interagency team's report.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.