Charged by a Grizzly

A Limbsaver Adventure By: Tony Pannkuk

Joel Swecker, (son of Washington State Senator, Dan Swecker), Brandon Betts and Isaac Garza, firefighters from West Thurston Fire Authority in Thurston County located in Washington State thought a mule deer hunt in Wyoming would be a typical hunting trip. However, the unexpected was about to happen. For one hunter in particular, hunting out of Powell, Wyoming near the southern boarder of Montana would prove to be a challenge of a lifetime.

Joel Swecker, Isaac Garza and Brandon Betts before a hunt turned into a confrontation with a hungry Grizzly.

Staying at the K Bar Z Ranch, the three hunters would head out each morning before daylight in search of mule deer. On the forth day of the hunt, they choose to split up after hunting together for the past three days. Deer were plentiful as they saw around thirty-five deer per day while covering the mountainous region of the Shoshone National Forest, bordering Yellowstone National Park. However, all bucks spotted were either spikes or two points and wanting to bag a bigger trophy, they choose not to shoot any of the smaller bucks.
Having spotted several grizzlies on the first three days of hunting the ranch hands had warned the three hunters to be extremely careful because the grizzlies were extra hungry; the food source for the bears had almost dried up for the year. After walking in several miles the hunters split up, Garza headed south to a ridge that went above where Swecker would be hunting. Betts went north following an old service road while Swecker went right up the middle following a trail that went straight up to a pass with rock cliffs on both sides.

The three hunters would be hunting an area the local residents had named, Cap and Ball. It is a field that looked like a baseball field with a 2000-foot rock face several hundred yards farther up the draw. The rock face named “Wolverine Rock” was located at the edge of the wilderness area. Ahead, the world ended at the 2000-foot rock wall.

Entering the Cap and Ball area, Swecker spotted three deer approximately 400 yards in front of him. One of the deer spotted was a buck so he watched it through his binoculars. Spotting an old burnt out stump, he would use it as a reference point while he pursed his prey.

Before approaching the burnt out stump, he saw an old growth tree that fell years ago, lying near the middle of the Cap and Ball field. Climbing onto the downed tree he took out his binoculars and started scanning for the deer. After 3-to-5 minutes, he could not locate the deer. Through the lenses, the cliffs and mesas grew clearer, as he scanned the area.

He put down his binoculars and as any hunter would do, he looked behind him, to his amazement he spotted a grizzly coming his way and not making a sound. At around 70 feet from him, he did notice the bear had its head down and it appeared that it was making eye contact. Swecker noticed the grizzly had scar marks on its face and nose. Watching the grizzly Swecker first though the bear did not know he was there.

With a strong breeze blowing to the grizzly, Swecker could see its nose working as it kept coming in his direction. Swecker brought up his Tikka 30-06 and found the monster in his scope. All he could see was a big patch of brown. At 50-feet, away and still coming, Swecker knew he had to do something. He was now getting worried, so he made a swishing sound a couple of times to get the grizzlies attention. He brought up his rifle waving it in the air and hollered “Hey, Hey” a couple of times. To Swecker’s utter disbelief, the bear made a woof sound and started sprinting toward him.

Within what seemed like seconds the grizzly was only 20 feet away and had jumped over a log coming straight for Swecker. The grizzly was now at a full run; Swecker had his rifle at his hip and wanted to scare it by shooting a warning shot. As he pulled the trigger, he knew it is illegal to shoot grizzlies in the lower 48 and was hoping the shot would scare the bear and have it turn away.

At the shot, the grizzly gave a blood curdling screaming growl and stood up on its hind legs. Swecker noticed the shot had inadvertently made contact hitting the grizzly in the chest. Entering the chest, the bullet went through the sternum area traveling down its belly. The shot opened it up as if a hunter preparing to take out the entrails.

With its massive jaws snapping, the grizzly started biting where the bullet had entered his body and still growling. To Swecker, it was like some macabre slow motion movie. At one point, the mad grizzly had hooked its intestines across its nose as it was biting at itself. The grizzly dropped on all fours, intensely growling and forcefully came charging at Swecker again. With his eyes widened with anticipation, Swecker shot from the hip again, this time missing the charging grizzly. At that point self-preservation took over, because Swecker does not remember ejecting the spent cartridge and sliding a new shell in the chamber. It was like something nefarious as it charged.

With the grizzly now only 15 steps away, Swecker he knew he had to make the next shot count or the grizzly would be on him in two or three seconds. He knew he had only three shots loaded in his rifle. With his last shot loaded in the chamber, he brought up his Tikka and pointed it at the bear. Knowing the scope was useless he looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger. Hitting the charging, wounded and crazed grizzly just above the right eye, the grizzly spun in a circle and dropped to the ground at the shot.

Not realizing the extreme danger that he had just encountered, it suddenly hit him, and he began shaking. Shaking so bad that he needed to get down from the log he was standing on, before he fell off. A sudden shiver hit him and he knew it had nothing to do with the cool surroundings the enveloped him. Everything seemed to proceed in silence for several minutes, all he could hear was his heart pounding and it felt like it was going to pound out of his chest. A rivulet of sweat ran down his cheek as a cold wash swept through him. He searched the dappled forest floor where the grizzly laid looking for any movement. His gaze locked on the downed beast that could have so easily taken his life instead of the other way around.

After getting his thoughts together, he got on his portable radio calling Betts and Garza to inform them as what had just happened. Both hearing his shots, thought that he was shooting at a mule deer. After meeting up with Swecker, they headed back to the K Bar Z Ranch where they knew the incident needed to be reported to the proper authorities.

Pryor to this incident there have been seven encounters with grizzlies in 2010 in Wyoming and Montana causing the death of one hunter. After reaching the K Bar Z Ranch, Swecker called the game department who sent out two game wardens who took the incident report and possession of the dead grizzly that they left in the woods.

Speaking with Game Warden Chris Queen, one of the officers who had interviewed Swecker, told me that he forwarded the reports to the federal authorities and no information about the incident could be released until the case is adjudicated.

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2 Responses to "Charged by a Grizzly"

  1. Brady Miller   2011/02/25 at 5:04 am

    Griz are always on my mind in the backcountry. And I hunt alone. Glad he made it out alive!!

  2. Joel Swecker   2011/08/05 at 2:48 pm

    Since the interview, the Federal Authorities have cleared me of any wrong doing. After only 4 months of investigation (usually taking 6-10 months) it was deemed a self-defense shooting. After speaking with the Wyoming agent who handled the case along with the Feds, he agreed it was one of the closest calls they have had in many years.