How Wildlife Investigators Found a Killer Grizzly in Yellowstone

A grizzly bear crime
April 2 2012 6:00 AM

A Death in Yellowstone

On the trail of a killer grizzly bear.

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At around 5 p.m. on Aug. 26, more than six hours after a pair of hikers reported finding a body on the Mary Mountain Trail, Yellowstone bear manager Kerry Gunther and four park rangers loaded their wildlife forensics gear into a helicopter and took off from a launching spot in the park’s interior. They flew over open meadows filled with wildflowers and the frigid waters of Otter Creek, which winds through Hayden Valley. It was an overcast evening, and there were lightning cells surrounding the helicopter—remnants of a heavy storm that passed through the area the night before.

The five men landed in some meadows near the Mary Mountain Trail, where the corpse had been found. They flew west of where they believed the body was resting, because they didn’t want to overshoot their mark. They were carrying everything they would need to investigate a grizzly crime: non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.

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Gunther was also carrying a .45-70 rifle slung over his shoulder and a .44 Magnum revolver in a holster on his hip. Either would have been strong enough to kill a charging bear.

In three decades spent working with bears in Yellowstone, Gunther had never had to use his weapon while investigating the scene of an attack, but he had no idea what he was walking into. As the rangers made their way toward the trail, they discussed what to do if they found a bear at the site of the body, red-pawed and hell-bent on defending its kill. It was a tense hike eastward, and the group kept their conversation a loud as possible. Bears are most dangerous to people when you sneak up on them, so they wanted any grizzlies in the area to be aware of their presence.

The investigators weren’t just worried about avoiding a deadly encounter with an aggressive suspect. They were also concerned about the rapidly setting sun. The helicopter they had taken in wasn’t cleared to fly in the dark, so that gave them only two hours to find the body and conduct their investigation.

They had been hiking for about a mile when they finally spotted the pair of legs and boots sticking out onto the trail. At that point they were fairly certain that this was the body of a 59-year-old library superintendent and experienced outdoorsman named John Wallace. Even though he lived more than a thousand miles from Yellowstone in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wallace had been to the park five or six times. His wife, Lisa, often joined him on these trips, but in the summer of 2011 he'd left her at home and gone camping in grizzly bear country all by himself.

Now Wallace's body was lying in the long grass next to a downed log and facing up—a sign that he'd seen his attacker and fought back. His face and arm were covered with dirt and a long-sleeved shirt. His other scratched-up arm was sticking out from under a pile of dirt, branches, and grass.

It was an awful, bloody scene: this faceless corpse, half-submerged in soil. But the most disturbing part was that pile of debris under which Wallace’s arm and torso were partially hidden. “We had an indication that the body had been cached,” Gunther says. That’s what grizzlies do to their food. A bear, or bears, hadn't just killed John Wallace. It had eaten him, too.

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