"I heard a "woof" and I smelled that awful breath," Vance says. "I knew I had stepped into a bad situation. I had surprised a bear." Not just any bear - a grizzly.
Vance, an outfitter from Cody, Wyo., survived his Sept. 5 encounter, but only after the grizzly clawed a gash in his head and mauled him.
The next morning, Vance's hunting partner, Todd Sanner, heard a noise while butchering an elk he'd killed the evening before. He looked up to see a grizzly bear charging him at full speed from only 60 yards away. Sanner fired his .44 magnum but the bear was on top of him within three to four seconds. The grizzly only bit his hand before running off, wounded, into the Teton Wilderness.
Grizzly bear encounters and sightings in the greater Yellowstone region were at a 10-year high this summer, wildlife officials agree. But the causes are a matter of debate.
Undoubtedly, the prolonged drought in the region has something to do with it. The summer of 1994 was a very poor food year, says Dave Moody, large predator coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Whitebark pine nuts, berries, and moths - all grizzly staples - were in low supply, he says, forcing bears to look more aggressively for food.
Moody says there's more to it than scarce food. "There's no doubt in my mind bear numbers appear to be increasing," he says. Grizzlies have been frequently spotted during overflights and have been seen in the North and South Fork of the Shoshone River near Cody, he says. In one night alone, nine or 10 grizzlies showed up looking for food at a lodge near Yellowstone's eastern border.
Other scientists back Moody. Dick Knight, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team in Bozeman, Mont., says grizzlies have been increasing at the rate of 4.6 percent annually over the past five years, though the estimate is not based on actual observation. The team also estimates that 278 grizzly bears inhabit the Yellowstone ecosystem.
John Craighead, who pioneered grizzly bear research in Yellowstone during the 1960s, agrees that bear numbers have increased the past few years, but he says people may be seeing more bears because they are expanding their range, moving out of Yellowstone into a much larger region.
"There's ... evidence the bears are having a hard time making a living in the ecosystem," Craighead says. The data shows that the bears are "smaller, lighter and possibly under stress."
While no formal study has been done, bear experts say the grizzlies are not in their best condition as they prepare for winter hibernation. As a result, more bears may die during hibernation and the bears' reproductive success may be less than usual, says Moody.
Meanwhile, wildlife officials are worried about the probable conflict between hungry grizzlies and thousands of hunters in the backcountry with their dead game. Following the incident at Nate Vance's hunting camp, a hunter in Montana's Gallatin National Forest shot a grizzly after it attacked him. Last month hunter Clay Peterson was badly mauled as he hunted in the Teton Wilderness outside the borders of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
* Lauren M. McKeever
The writer works in Jackson, Wyoming.