Team learns how to investigate wildlife attacks

August 7, 2018

When a wild animal attacks a person, it’s big news, but few know what goes on behind the scenes when wildlife professionals respond.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Wildlife Human Attack Response Team is in charge when attacks occur - most recently taking the lead in investigating a bear attack on a researcher in the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby.

Last month, the state agency and law enforcement professionals from across Montana met at Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell to train for how to properly respond to and investigate a wildlife attack.

Brian Sommers, the lead criminal investigator for Region 1, and Erik Wenum, the bear and mountain lion specialist for Region 1, organized the three-day training. Combined, they have more than 60 years experience.

Dr. Joseph Bergman, a bear attack treatment specialist at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, also spoke about the difficulties in treating animal attack victims, particularly for bears because of the harmful bacteria they leave behind in a wound.

The training included simulations of various animal attack scenarios based on real events.

Wenum explained that wildlife attack investigations are unique and require a different protocol than a typical criminal investigation.

“The weather is always a major consideration, as well as the terrain, which can make finding evidence difficult,” Wenum said.

When investigators examine a wildlife attack, their main goal is to determine if a person was targeted or if it occurred when an animal was surprised.

Determining why an attack occurred allows the agency to make a decision about how to handle the animal. If it was predatory, then the goal is to remove the animal.

In the training, the teams didn’t know what type of animal had attacked or the number of victims. They were given just a few small pieces of information.

One simulation began with a woman reporting that she found a lone sandal and saw a brown “blur.” She thought it was an odd place to find a sandal and decided to report it.

The team went to the location and began to look for any evidence. Soon they found “blood” streaks in the dry dirt and followed the trail to the first “victim”, a teenage boy who was under a cliff.

At that point, they learned a bear had “attacked” the boy. The bear had dragged him to his resting place. At that point, they also learned his sister had been “attacked” when she ran away while her brother was being mauled.

“When there is an attack, our first priority is to get to the victim,” Wenum said. “And we want to make sure all of the officers stay safe because the animal may still be in the area.”

Officers tended to the “victims” before emergency medical technicians arrived, while others searched for the attack animal.

While all that was going on, some officers were collecting evidence, taking measurements and photographing the scene.

Wenum explained that in a real attack, once the victims are safe and taken out of the area, investigators step up their efforts to collect evidence at the scene, while another would be at the hospital where the victim was taken.

“They are there to collect evidence and talk to the victim’s family,” Wenum said.

Bryan Golie, a Region 4 investigator, said the training was important.

“It was nice ... because we have so many young, newer officers who haven’t been through it,” Golie said.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

Update hourly