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Grizzly Bear Defense, Bryan Berg, 17 September, 2017, Bob Marshall Wilderness, MT

Opinion

Image from Bryan Berg cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

Arizona -(Ammoland.com)- In September of 2017, In the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, near Glacier National Park, Bryan Berg had to shoot a big boar grizzly. You may have seen the AP story where the federal investigators confirmed he shot the bear in self-defense.

Bryan got into trouble for not reporting the shooting, and for cutting off the bear claws as a memento. The plea bargain was under the Lacy Act, for transporting the bear claws across state lines.   From startribune.com:

Acting on a tip, authorities interviewed Berg in March 2018. He admitted he shot the bear in self-defense, handed over the claws and provided investigators with photos and videos of the scene, according to records.

“I was so (expletive) mad at it because he was going to eat me, I know he was,” Berg told investigators, according to the records. “So I basically said, ‘Hey, (expletive) you,’ and I cut his claws off. I did. I wanted to keep them as a memento.”

Bryan’s father and grandfather started him shooting as a young boy, about age six. He started hunting at a young age. His family has been hunting the Flathead river drainage in the Bob Marshall wilderness since 1940. He is an accomplished hunter, a competitive trap shooter, and an excellent long-range rifle shooter. He shoots several hundred rounds a week from a 9mm pistol. He does a lot of reloading to fuel his passion for shooting.

The Montana base camp Bryan and his family were hunting out of in 2017, is about 8 hours of a horse ride from the trailhead, 20 miles into the wilderness.

On 17 September or 2017, Bryan was out of camp long before sunrise, about 3:30 a.m., hiking through the mountains to the area he wished to hunt. Only a small sliver of moon was showing, so he used his headlamp. He was intimately familiar with the terrain and knew just where he was going. He moved slowly and carefully.

The temperature was below freezing, with almost no wind.  The sky was clear, with sunrise at 7:15.  On the previous day, he missed a bull elk at long range, hitting a tree instead, and dumping a load of snow off the tree onto the bull.

The shot was difficult because it was snowing. He wanted to be sure not to wound the animal.

There is only one entrance and exit to the valley Bryan was hunting because of the cliffs.

He was 30 feet from that entrance.

He was cow calling an hour before dawn. Bulls answered, from opposite directions, but did not come closer. The sun came up. He was waiting, range finding, and looking for where the elk might appear.  He carried a custom .338 Norma Magnum bolt action rifle with a Nightforce rifle scope and sling. The rig weighs about eleven pounds, with a 26-inch barrel. The rifle was loaded with 300-grain hand loads.

Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten . The .338 has a different scope in this picture.
.338 Norma Magnum bolt action rifle. The .338 has a different scope in this picture. Image by Bryan Berg cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten. .

After sunrise, the elk stopped calling. He thought the elk had gone silent because they had winded him. He waited, just in case one was coming in. He put down his rifle and put on his pack. Then he picked up the rifle, took the round out of the chamber, and slung it on his right shoulder.

He was standing at the edge of the cliff and made one last cow call before leaving.

Some inner voice, or unconscious feeling, caused him to turn around and look. He had heard nothing, smelled nothing, at least nothing consciously. That is when he saw the big boar grizzly, 75 feet away, uphill, a second before the bear saw him. The bear’s head was down.

The advantage of that second may have saved him. As he started to unsling the rifle, the bear roared and charged. He got the rifle off his shoulder, slammed a round into the chamber, and fired from the hip, all in less than two seconds.

The bear was in full charge. At the shot, it collapsed, 32 feet from Bryan, as measured from the ejected case. The bear covered half the distance to Bryan in a second. It was a close thing. In another second, the bear would have hit him. He was at the edge of the cliff. He could not retreat. If the bear had impacted him, he and/or the bear could easily have gone over the edge.

Bryan experienced some time distortion, as is common in life and death situations. He said things seemed to take forever.

Bryan believes his long familiarity with the rifle and his numerous hours practicing are what allowed him to make the shot. After the grizzly was down, Bryan ejected the remaining cartridges without firing. Then he reloaded from his pocket. I had heard stories of this sort of thing as a teen during Northern Wisconsin deer hunts, more than 50 years ago. Adrenaline surges can cause strange behavior. Later, Bryan retrieved those .338 Norma Magnum hand loads.

Bryan did not cut open the bear to find the internal path of the bullet. With an abundance of caution, he did not want to get closer to the bear when it might revive. He knew he was in trouble because of the iconic status of grizzly bears.  Bryan refused to leave a wounded bear in the area. He waited but did not shoot again. When he was sure the bear was dead, he took photos and some video on his phone, with a vague thought of preserving evidence of the attack. It was a fortuitous move. Then he left.

He decided not to report the incident. He decided, he said, to “roll the dice.”

He got mad at the bear for attacking him. He went back, cut off the bear’s claws as a memento, and rolled the carcass off the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t far to the edge, a bit over 32 feet, and downhill. The hard part was orienting a several hundred-pound bear carcass so that it was parallel to the cliff face. Rolling it downhill was much easier.

Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten
Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

He believes the entrance wound was on the left side of the neck. The bear was on all fours, so the bullet went into the body from the front. Bryan did not find an exit wound.  He looked. The bullet delivered about 5100 foot-pounds of energy from Bryan’s handloaded 300 grain Berger Hunter Elite bullet in the  Norma .338 Magnum cartridge. Maybe the bullet hit the spine. Sometimes a single shot makes for an instant stop. It did in Bryan’s case.

Bryan left the scene of the attack again.  He says the events were messing with his mind. He was not thinking straight. He did not want to go back to camp. He knew it was unlikely there was another big boar bear on that mountain, but he could not escape the mindset of hyper-awareness. He stumbled onto a boneyard of five or six animals, probably elk. That messed with his mind some more; then he found a bear den in a natural cave! Finally, he discovered a six-point elk that had been killed in unknown circumstances a few days prior. It had to be a few days because there were plenty of maggots, and the weather was quite cool.  Something had been feeding on the dead elk.

Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten
Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

He decided to salvage the big elk rack. He sawed off the rack and skull cap with some difficulty. It was about a mile from where the bear attack occurred.

When he finally went back to camp, he had a six-point elk rack and two bear paws. His family knew something was amiss. There was considerable pressure to tell what had happened.

Bryan told his hunting partners what had happened. In the next few days, someone informed the federal authorities the bear had been shot.

Federal investigators helicoptered the body of the bear out of the wilderness five days after it was killed.

Bryan told me he was proficient at shooting from the hip because, when archery hunting, he had carried a Mossberg pump shotgun with a pistol grip, for bear protection.  Years before, when he tried shooting the shotgun at the range, he could not hit with it, because it did not have a shoulder stock.  He said he “was horrible with that gun.” So he practiced and practiced and practiced until he could shoot and hit reliably from the hip.

He credits the hours of practice with gaining the proficiency to hit the charging grizzly, with a very fast shot, after unslinging his 11 lb, scoped .338 rifle and chambering a round.

It is a skill few practice.

Bryan could not believe how fast the bear covered the distance.

Bryan did not carry a pistol with him because he believed the rifle was sufficient.

His experience has changed his mind.  He now believes, while hunting in bear country, a pistol is important, because it is always with you. His bear encounter could have turned out much differently if he did not have the rifle on his person. He had set the rifle down just a few seconds earlier when he was putting on the pack. If the bear had shown up a few seconds earlier, he would not have had immediate access to the rifle.

Bryan learned from the experience. He carries a Smith & Wesson 329 .44 magnum in a Kenai Chest Rig. That pistol stays with him all the time in the field. He keeps it loaded with HSM bear loads, 305-grain hard cast lead rated at 1260 fps.

Smith & Wesson 329 .44 magnum in a Kenai Chest Rig. Loaded with HSM bear loads,
Smith & Wesson 329 .44 magnum in a Kenai Chest Rig. Loaded with HSM bear loads, Image by Bryan Berg, cropped and scaled by Dean Weingarten

Bryan thinks it was the cow calling that attracted the big grizzly boar. Then, when the bear saw him, as the top predator on the mountain, the bear attacked out of surprise and its dominant position.

Bryan has been charged by bears multiple times.

In 2018, he saw three bears, his hunting party shot four bull elk opening day, and there was bear sign everywhere.

In 2019, he ran a small grizzly out of camp by whooping and hollering with his .45-70 as a backup gun.

Years earlier, he used bear spray with a bluff charge on the south fork of the flathead river. He was going through thick alder brush, in what they call a bear tunnel. The bear bluff charged, but turned and left from 30 feet away. Bryan is not sure if any of the bear spray reached the bear.

When Brian was asked by investigators about his trip, in March of 2018, six months after he shot the grizzly, which attacked him in 2017, he immediately told them he had shot the bear. He showed them the pictures and video he had made for his girlfriend, to explain the incident. He gave them the bear claws.

The investigators reviewed the evidence. They came to the conclusion he shot the bear in self-defense. He agreed to a plea deal, which included a $5,000 fine and probation.  Because he paid in cash, his probation was dropped from three years to one year. During that year, he is not allowed to hunt or purchase hunting licenses.

He did not lose his Second Amendment rights or have to submit to repetitive drug testing. In ten more months, the legal issues will have disappeared.

It would have been best if Bryan had reported the self-defense case to the authorities.  It would have saved him considerable trouble and 5,000 dollars, not including lawyer’s fees.

How many bears are killed in self-defense, which are not reported to the authorities? If Bryan had been hunting alone, without a base camp full of family and friends, it is likely no one would ever have heard of the incident.

Most grizzly self-defense kills are probably reported. A great many never make the papers. We know this to be so because of the database of bear fatalities kept for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

It is likely a significant majority of the defensive shootings of black bears go unreported. Black bears are more likely to run off when shot, than grizzly bears. They are more likely to present themselves as easy targets as they make predatory approaches to a potential prey (humans), of which they are uncertain. Black bears are not endangered or generally investigated by federal authorities. In Alaska, they are considered pests.

If you know of incidents involving the defensive use of firearms against bears, which have not been written about, or which may have been written about but not included in our data set, please contact AmmoLand News.

We collect and publish all incidents where a pistol is fired, whether the firing of a pistol is effective in stopping or preventing a bear attack, or if the firing of a pistol failed to stop the attack.


About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30-year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

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