On a cold, damp autumn morning, four Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks trucks ripped across a muddy and rutted field. Within moments of arriving at their destination, a hysterical woman approached the four game wardens, yelling that her husband was just attacked by a bear.
Along with the woman, named Sharon, police, emergency personnel and reporters were all pressing the wardens for more information. Information they didn’t have yet.
As the wardens assessed the scene and tried to figure out what happened, Sharon bolted for the woods. The game wardens were in hot pursuit and one was nearly taken out by a police line tied to a fence post.
After restraining Sharon, they slowly headed into the woods, guns drawn.
“Kermit,” they yelled, looking for the victim. “Where are you?”
About 20 minutes earlier, the wardens got a call that Kermit and Sharon had been hiking in the woods when the husband decided to go off trail. When he didn’t return, Sharon went looking for him and then heard his soft, struggling voice: “Stay back. Bear. Go get help.”
Now help was on the way. Following a trail of bear scat, the wardens found Kermit doubled-over and under a tree. One warden checked on his condition while the others fanned out to protect the area. One of them saw rustling in the brush and then heard a faint growl.
But the growl and rustling wasn’t a bear. It wasn’t even an animal. It was actually one of Brian Sommers’ assistants, and the entire scenario was a simulated practice run created by the FWP criminal investigator to make sure his team of wardens is prepared for the worst in the wild. Sommers has written the book on how FWP wardens should respond to bear attacks and traveled the country helping train other first responders.
“It’s a learning process,” Sommers said of the annual animal attack training exercise that was held on Sept. 30 west of Kalispell. “This helps us find out what works and what does not work.”
While the wardens protected the actor pretending to be a bear attack victim, medical personnel were led into the scene and helped access Kermit’s injuries. He was then air lifted out of the area. Meanwhile, Sommers kept a close eye on the entire exercise as it unfolded.
Sommers has worked for FWP for nearly 30 years and became the Region 1 criminal investigator in 2007. In that position, he responds to major crimes within FWP’s jurisdiction and just about any animal–human encounter, regardless of species. This year, he has responded to a bear attack near Columbia Falls, a wild horse attack on Wild Horse Island and even an otter attack near Swan Lake.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a bear attack, a deer attack, an elk attack, a lion attack or even an otter attack, we deal with it the exact same way,” he said.
In the case of the recent mock bear attack, the wardens shot the bear before inspecting its body and measuring out the scene. The wardens also found a dead deer that the bear was apparently protecting.
Sommers said he works hard to make the practice runs as realistic as possible, even going as far as having an A.L.E.R.T. helicopter lift-off with the victim and have members of the media pepper the wardens with questions as the situation unfolds.
On this day the wardens do make a few mistakes, most notably not finding a clump of bear hair the victim was holding that would have been helpful in identifying the animal.
“The ultimate goal was to find the victim, take care of that victim and that we all went home safe,” he said. “Even if a few things went wrong, we can fix those later, the main thing is everyone gets home.”
The wardens complete the practice run at least once a year, but Sommers said he’d like to add more. Erik Wenum, a bear and lion specialist and one of the wardens who was at the training sessions, said they are always helpful.
“They try and make these sessions as real as possible,” he said. “The more we rehearse for these types of incidents, the better prepared we will be when they really happen.”