Idaho hunter Trevor Schneider had quite the story to tell his regional newspaper – the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. – about his “near-death” experience with an Alaska grizzly bear, or was it a black bear?
The newspaper slipped back and forth between the two as if there was little difference, so most likely, the black bear-brown bear confusion was due to the sort of journalistic incompetence that has become all too normal.
Photos of the bear on the Facebook page of Schneider’s sister, Tana Grenda, leave no doubt the bear was among the biggest of grizzlies, or what is more often in Alaska called a “coastal brown bear.”
The rest of the story is well summed by former bear guide Rod Arno, now the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council.
“So much of this story is unbelievable I don’t know where to start,” he messaged. “Could inexperienced bear hunters have f—– up a bear hunt this bad? No surprise the bear was only wounded at 470 yards out.
“It only takes a story like this or two to get out to discredit a worthy outdoor experience like bear hunting in Alaska. The Alaska bear hunting regulation requiring an Alaskan registered guide (for non-residents) makes sense.”
Schneider’s hunting companion in this case was a GINO, his sister, Grenda.
Bears, bears, bears
Grenda is a resident of King Salmon, the site of an old airbase about 300 miles from Anchorage in Southwest Alaska. It is now a rural community home to fewer than 400 people just west of Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Tourists come from around the world to watch and photograph them, and outside the park boundaries in all directions, some people come to hunt them. The Alaska Peninsula of which Katmai is part has a considerable number of these bears.
“It’s not like what we’re used to in areas like North Idaho and Washington,” Schneider told Spokesman-Review reporter Eli Frankovich, who dutifully wrote down every word. “You see bears like you see deer down here.”
Well, not quite.
Alaska wildlife biologists have estimated brown bear densities on the Peninsula as high as one bear per square mile in the best of habitats. Good deer habitat in Idaho is home to six deer per square mile or more.
Idaho hunters last year killed just shy of 49,700 deer, according to the official government website, and it wasn’t a wanton slaughter. This was the number of deer the state’s wildlife managers decided could be harvested at a sustainable level.
Alaska wildlife managers estimate an annual harvest of 1,800 to 1,900 brown/grizzly bears is sustainable. And Alaska is about seven and a half times bigger than Idaho, so go figure.
There are a lot of myths spread about Alaska hunting in the Lower 48 state. The reality is Alaska game populations are small compared to the state’s size because the wildlife carrying capacity is reduced by extreme winters.
What Alaska lacks in numbers, however, it makes up for in size.
Schneider and Grenda found a bear so big they could see it from eight miles away, or so the Spokesman-Review story says. An online fitness trainer, Grenda got to “guide” the hunt by nature of her now hometown.
By law in Alaska, for “safety reasons”, brown/grizzly bear hunters are required to be accompanied by a state-certified guide or an “Alaska resident 19 years of age or older who is within the second degree of kindred,” according to Alaska Fish and Game.
Grenda is clearly a world-class guide if she can spot a bear eight miles away.
As one experienced Alaska hunter observed, “they spotted then stalked it from eight miles away? Really? There must some optics out there I’m not aware of.”
Whatever. That’s what the story says. And it must have been some distance to the bear they were after given the length of time it took to get there.
“They left camp at 6 a.m. on May 13 and spent the next 14 hours hiking uphill, picking their way through thickets of alders and devil’s club,” Frankovich reported.
Most experienced Alaska hunters turn back after 13 hours. The hide of a normally big bear – let alone one so big you can see it from eight miles away – will easily weigh over 100 pounds with the skull adding another 25 pounds or more.
A 14-hour hike under a 125 pound or greater load is not for the weak-kneed. And given that the story reported Schneider and Grenda were already carrying 50-pound packs, splitting the hide in half to make it more packable was still going to make for big loads.
Still, the story said they kept hiking until they got almost to within range of what a state-licensed bear guide would think a reasonable position for a shot – almost being the operative word.
“They closed in on the bear they’d spotted from the beach eight miles below,” Frankovich reported.
“‘We were going after a big one,’ (Schneider) said. ‘We weren’t going to shoot a small one.”
“He (Schneider) found his spot, 470 yards away, totally exposed on an open expanse of snow.
“He aimed. Steadied his breath. And shot.
“Once, twice and a third time. The .338 ultra mag (a large magnum cartridge good for long-distance shooting) pierced the bear’s lung, the second high left on the animal’s shoulder and the third through the bear’s neck.”
How the hunters saw where the bullets were striking at this distance was not explained. Maybe they figured out it after they skinned the dead bear.
Four-hundred-seventy yards is nearly the length of five football fields. Most state-licensed Alaska hunting guides wouldn’t let a client take a shot at that distance, except maybe for the late and famous Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, if for no other reason than that cartridge performance changes at that range as the velocity of the bullet slows.
Energy decreases as the square of velocity. According to Nosler, an ammunition manufacturer, the .338 Remington Ultra Mag will have lost nearly 40 percent of its muzzle energy at the range Schneider was shooting.
The .338 RUM, as it is often called, is one hell of a cartridge for long-distance shooting. But at 500 yards, its killing power is down in the range of the venerable .30-06 caliber.
Plenty of bears have been killed with the .30-06, but they were shot at ranges a lot closer than 470 yards, which makes bullet placement easier and alters bullet performance.
Bullets are designed for certain impact velocities. There is a trade off between the bullet expanding to increase tissue damage when it hits its target at distance and staying intact to avoid fragmenting at close range.
“Almost any bullet can be made to expand at long range, but the thin jackets and soft cores that promote such expansion don’t support bullet integrity when impact distances are close and velocities extremely high,” Joseph von Benedikt writes at Rifle Shooter Magazine.
“Conversely, it’s not that difficult to produce a bullet that will hold together at close-range, high-impact velocities, but the heavy jackets, harder lead-alloy cores and bonding processes used to create such bullets can inhibit expansion when distances stretch and velocities drop.”
Most bullets designed for hunting dangerous game, like Alaska grizzly bears, lean toward the “hold together” category. This sometimes causes problems when shooting at long ranges. The bullets hold together so well they function almost like “full metal jacket” bullets.
Full-metal jacket bullets are those the 1899 Hague Declaration, a global treaty, declared should be used in war to “eliminate the unnecessary injury and suffering associated with very large bullet wounds,” as scientists working for the International Committee of the Red Cross observed in reviewing the declaration in 2002.
The agreement banned expanding bullets because they deposit “their kinetic energy earlier in the wound track than full metal jacket bullets. Full metal jacket bullets remain stable in their passage through tissue for a variable distance before turning side-on; this deeper penetration means they may pass through the victim’s body without causing as much tissue damage.”
When hunting dangerous big game, like Alaska brown bears, what a hunter wants is maximum tissue damage.
Whatever kind of bullets Schneider was shooting when he made his 470-yard shot, they didn’t provide enough tissue damage. They didn’t put the bear down.
Then Schneider’s gun jammed (though it’s unclear from the story how), and the bear started moving toward him and Grenda. What followed is what might be the most accurate part of the story:
“They started to panic.”
With his rifle jammed, Schneider was left to defend himself against the charging bear with a revolver chambered for the .454-Casull caliber cartridge. It is about as potent a handgun as one can buy.
Grenda, however, was unarmed. Why?
Frankovich reported this: “…According to the (Alaska) rules, she was not allowed to shoot the bear.”
That is simply wrong. Under Alaska law, the person accompanying the hunter is not allowed to hunt the bear, but the moment a hunting situation becomes a matter of life and death that rule goes out the window.
Alaska has a “defense of life and property” law that allows anyone to shoot a bear pretty much anytime and anywhere if necessary to save a human life. Shooting a wounded animal to minimize its suffering or for hunter safety falls in a grayer area, but there are plenty of bears shot by Alaska guides every year after their hunters wound them.
The better explanation for the lack of a weapon for Grenda might be explained by Frankovich’s following observation that “the two opted to save weight and bring only one rifle, one bow and one pistol.”
What the bow was for was one of the many other unexplained elements in the story. A bow is not so good against a charging grizzly. A spear would be better.
A bow on a hunt like this would seem even more useless weight than a gun, which is something easy to decide to leave behind. Hiking 14 hours with a 50-pound pack is a pretty stiff workout for most people. A rifle adds significanlty to the load. A .338 RUM weighs about eight and a half pounds, closer to 10 with a scope.
Schneider and Grenda cut weight, and thus found themselve undergunned with a wounded bear coming toward them. Thus they decided to run for it.
“They dropped their gear and headed downhill, angling toward three boulders, the only cover around,” Frankovich wrote. “They made it to the rocks on the ridge line, but the bear continued to move forward.”
How they ran downhill and ended up on a ridge line isn’t explained, but there they were in the rocks with the bear still coming at them, and then it sensed them. Schneider said it started coming faster.
He pulled out his handgun, “which held five .454 Casull rounds,” Frankovich wrote. “He had five more rounds on his hip. Schneider, trying to stay crouched behind the rock, waited until the bear got closer.
“He fired, aiming for the animal’s face, but crouched as he was, he missed.”
The bear picked up speed. Schneider shot again. This bullet, he claimed, hit the bear in the chest; the next round hit it in the shoulder; and one more was said to have hit it somewhere “broadside” as it continued past the hunters and downhill.
Schneider and Grenda took off again on the run, but when they turned to look back to see what had happened they were said to have seen where “the bear had tumbled off the ridge, starting a small avalanche.”
The bear was dead. The hunters were in shock. But they had survived their near-death experience.
The rest of their adventure was the grunt that big game hunting in Alaska always turns into.
“Schneider acknowledged the deadly truth of the situation,” Frankovich wrote. “He and his sister barely escaped with their lives despite all the benefits of modern technology.
“‘We’re nothing compared to these things,’ he said. ‘If you were to throw us out there with nothing, we don’t stand a chance. The only way we stand a chance is with the technology and the tools.'”
This is why there were no Native Alaskans living on the Alaska Peninsula before the advent of modern technology. Oh wait, there were.
The prehistoric record indicates the Alutiiq were there and on neighboring Kodiak Island for thousands of years before white men arrived in the north.
“At that time, the Alutiiq hunted (brown) bears, using their meat for food, hides for clothing and bedding, intestines for rainproof parkas, long bones for tools, and teeth for adornment,” a state Fish and Game history records. “Bears were usually stalked by groups of two or three hunters armed with bows and arrows.
“The bear arrow was about 32 in. long and had a barbed bone point seven inches long with an inserted end blade of slate. If the bear attacked, the hunters defended themselves with spears.”
It was a dangerous business.
“No virtue was more valued than bravery and no act required greater bravery than confronting a grizzly bear. You had to get very close with a spear in order to kill a bear and often a warrior or two was lost in the process of a hunt,” write Katmai Park ranger Russ Taylor.
There were no Alutiiq popping away at brown bears at 470 yards with a high-power rifle.
Schneider – a YouTube star on the family run “Stuck N The Rut” site – said the lesson he learned from this supposed near-death experience was that both he and his sisters should have had handguns, and she should have had a rifle as well.
Obviously the lesson that went unlearned is that you shouldn’t be shooting at bears at 500 yards where it is difficult for the best of marksman to place a shot well, and where bullet performance isn’t what it is at 200 yards or less.
“What a shame to miss the excitement of stalking within 100 yards of a magnificent Alaskan bear,” Arno said, and then making a clean kill.
Then again, with a clean kill there would have been no exciting “near-death” experience to talk about.