An off-duty game warden was “absolutely” acting in self-defense when he killed a charging grizzly in the Sunlight area last year, said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.
After reviewing a Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation report on the Oct. 25 incident, Skoric concluded that, given the circumstances, Powell Game Warden Chris Queen “was left with no other option” but to shoot the bear.
“While unfortunate that a grizzly bear with three cubs was killed, your investigation leads to no other conclusion that this was an act of natural self-defense by Chris Queen,” Skoric wrote to DCI on April 4.
Queen had been hunting elk in the area at the time of the encounter and, as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department recommends, he was carrying bear spray. The veteran warden was also familiar with the spray, having successfully used it in an encounter with a bear years ago.
In this case, however, “bear spray was never an option,” Skoric concluded. For one thing, the prosecutor said Queen didn’t have enough time to drop his rifle: After being shot, the bear fell where the warden had been standing seconds before. Further, a strong wind was blowing at the bear’s back.
In those conditions, Skoric said, Queen could have incapacitated himself or died if he’d tried to use the spray.
“On this occasion, he [Queen] acted in the only way he could to prevent serious injury or death to himself — something any person is entitled to do,” Skoric wrote in his “declination letter.” The letter was a formal notification to DCI investigators that no criminal charges would be pursued.
DCI’s report on the incident and Skoric’s letter were released to the Tribune last week in response to a public records request.
The female grizzly killed by Queen — known to the Game and Fish Department as No. 423 — is believed to have been roughly 21 years old.
According to department records attached to DCI’s report, the bear had been trapped and removed from the Sunlight Creek area twice before. Department personnel first captured the bear in 2002, after it broke into buildings and got grain, and moved it to the East Fork of the Wind River. In 2011, the sow was trapped again in the Sunlight Creek area after she was caught eating a dead cow calf; whether she actually killed the calf was unknown, but she was moved to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest that straddles the Wyoming-Idaho border.
Game and Fish personnel had last documented the bear in 2013 in the Trail Creek area of the Shoshone National Forest; the sow had been spotted with a pair of 2-year-old cubs at that time.
Last October, Queen heard the mother bear before he saw her.
Queen later recounted to DCI that he’d started hunting for elk in the Little Sunlight/Trail Creek area around 4 p.m. that day. Eventually, he’d hiked through a narrow open area to try spotting some elk with his binoculars. Queen found none and, as he walked back to his horse and two mules, “he heard a quick hissing noise and turned to see a sow grizzly bear (No. 423) with three cubs approximately 30 yards behind him,” DCI Special Agent Darrell Steward wrote in his report.
The mother bear took a couple big jumps toward Queen, coming within roughly 15 yards of the warden, according to his account to DCI.
Familiar with bears from his work with the Game and Fish and a seasoned hunter, Queen told DCI he recognized the charge as a bluff. He chambered a round in his rifle and yelled at the bear, and she turned back to her three cubs.
Queen kept backing away and felt he “was good,” as he was putting distance between himself and the bears, agent Steward wrote.
But as Queen retreated and sought cover behind a tree, the bear came at him again. It began as another “false charge,” with the grizzly again bouncing on its front legs and holding its head up as she rushed at Queen.
Queen again yelled at the bear, but the encounter dramatically changed.
“She went from second gear to fifth gear,” Queen later recalled to DCI, saying the bear lowered her head and rushed toward him. The warden knew he wasn’t going to be able to get away.
His thought at the time?
“I was screwed,” Queen told DCI.
In an encounter with another bear in 2010, he said the bruin came within 5 to 10 yards before he sprayed and diverted it. Last October, however, his rifle was already in his hands and his bear spray was attached to his binocular harness; further, the wind was blowing hard — around 30 mph by Queen’s estimation — and it was at the bear’s back.
“Common sense dictates that spray is simply not effective with high winds unless your orientation to the bear is spot on,” Skoric, the prosecutor, later wrote in his declination letter; he also noted that carrying bear spray is “something not required by law.”
Queen took aim at the approaching grizzly and fired a single shot. The hand-loaded 7mm Remington magnum bullet hit the bear in the head and went through her vertebrae before coming to rest in her shoulder blade, DCI says; the bruin fell dead “where Warden Queen had been standing … only a fraction of a second before,” agent Steward wrote of Queen’s recollection.
Queen chambered another round and continued backing out of the area while the cubs went to their fallen mother. Game and Fish ultimately decided to leave the cubs at the site.
“This incident occurred late in the season, and cubs of the year have a decent chance of survival at that time,” said Dan Smith, the Game and Fish’s Cody Region supervisor. “It was decided to leave them there and give them a chance hoping they would den for the winter and have an even greater chance of survival as yearlings in the spring. The bears were not observed in the area in the following days.”
Queen immediately reported the shooting to his supervisors at Game and Fish, starting with a call to Smith from his satellite phone around 6:30 p.m. The department, in turn, notified DCI and the Park County Sheriff’s Office, who jointly investigated the incident.
A slew of Game and Fish and law enforcement personnel traveled to the scene the following day, the report says. They included agent Steward and Park County Sheriff Scott Steward (who is Darrell’s brother) plus four people from the Game and Fish: Smith, Investigator Ira Leonetti, North Fork Game Warden Travis Crane and Large Carnivore Specialist Luke Ellsbury.
Agent Steward and Sheriff Steward interviewed Queen on the morning of Oct. 26, with Game and Fish investigator Leonetti sitting in.
Warden Queen recalled being calm throughout the brief encounter with the mother grizzly.
“After he shot No. 423, he was angry at himself, explaining that he had told other Game and Fish personnel they had to stop killing grizzlies, for fear the federal government may take over the management again and restrict hunting even further,” agent Steward wrote of Queen’s account.
Queen’s shooting of the bear drew widespread publicity — especially since the warden’s encounter came just months after Game and Fish took over management of the species.
Some wildlife advocates were skeptical of Queen’s actions, with several providing comments to the publication Mountain Journal.
Jackson Hole attorney and wildlife advocate Deidre Bainbridge said she didn’t know whether bear spray would have worked, “but I don’t give the warden the benefit of the doubt,” she told the Mountain Journal shortly after the incident. “He [Queen] should know how to behave in bear country to protect the bear, especially one with three cubs.”
Sheriff Steward said Bainbridge was also one of roughly 50-60 people who contacted him with concerns about the incident.
“I was getting bombarded from all of the East Coast and all over the place with emails,” he recalled.
In her email to the sheriff and prosecutor Skoric, Bainbridge said the investigation needed to include measurements, photos, witness and suspect statement and a necropsy with ballistic information and precise wind speed data.
Much of that information was compiled by DCI, whose investigation corroborated many of the details of Queen’s account.
For instance, Queen had guessed that the wind was blowing roughly 30 mph; DCI Supervisory Special Agent Steve Herrmann pulled data from a weather station located less than 7 miles from the scene and found it had recorded wind speeds between 27 to 39 mph around that time.
Further, judging by the wound and the extensive damage to the bullet, agent Steward concluded the bear appeared to have been shot from a close range as Queen had described.
In his declination letter, Skoric praised DCI’s investigation of the incident. Out of dozens of bear death reports he’s reviewed over the years, “this was by far the most in-depth and thorough,” he wrote.
Herrmann said it was the first bear death his office had investigated.
“From our standpoint, it’s another case,” he said. “And we go to the lengths that we go to ... — anything that’s available we try to grab — in any kind of investigation.”
Sheriff’s Steward, who conducted his own investigation in conjunction with DCI, said he gives Queen “kudos” for waiting as long as he did to shoot.
“[Warden] Queen did what he could to not have to shoot the bear,” the sheriff said. “But in the end that was the only recourse he had.”