Survivor recounts grizzly bear attack in northwest Montana

Bears attack people in northwest Montana a few times a year. That's enough for medical professionals and wildlife managers to have developed a special protocol that's part treatment, part forensics to ensure both parties recover. (Photo by Bob Drieslein)

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Anders Broste was teaching a friend to hunt last November north of Columbia Falls when he stumbled upon a grizzly bear bedded down under a fallen tree about 15 feet ahead.

“It was just moving right at me. They talk about fight or flight. And for sure, like, I didn’t even, like, my body just started moving away from where this bear was coming from. But also in my mind I kind of processed a couple things. Like one, this is about to happen and nothing you can do is going to stop it, so hold on,” he told Montana Public Radio recently.

Broste had just enough time to shove his rifle between himself and the bear.

“I think it just grazed off its shoulder and then, like, I either got knocked down or I tripped, fell backwards, but the next thing I knew, the bear was on top of me. It bit my right arm, you know kind of that shaking, like shaking, twisting, disabling kind of movements. And definitely heard the snap, crackle, pop of my of my bones, or whatever.

“And then it moved on to my left leg, bit just above my ankle. Kind of shook me around a bit and then the final bite was on the the toe of my boot. And at that point it was kind of downhill from me and was actually pulling me downhill, and I really remember this. And this sounds really weird, but there was a moment where the bear was pulling on my boot and my heel started to slip out. And I, for some reason, was concerned about losing my boots. All that’s going on, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I’m about to lose my boot.’ Then it just dropped my foot and ran off. And the last thing I remember is this big brown furry butt running away, and that was great,” he says.

Broste yelled for his hunting buddy, who hadn’t heard anything and was surprised to find his friend torn up. They fired off a few rounds to scare the bear away, then called 911. That call sent alerts to Brian Somers and Joe Bergman is a criminal investigator for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and Bergman is an orthopedic surgeon at Flathead Orthopedics, with “a special interest in treatment of trauma and bear maulings,” he says.

Bears attack people in northwest Montana a few times a year. That’s enough for medical professionals and wildlife managers to have developed a special protocol that’s part treatment, part forensics to ensure both parties recover.

Sommers, with FWP, arrived at the attack scene north of Columbia Falls just as Broste was getting loaded into a medical helicopter.

“So we had to wait until everybody got loaded up into the helicopter and it took off, and then we went in and started processing the scene,” Sommers says.

Sommers leads the Wildlife-Human Attack Response Team, or WHART for short, to ensure a systematic approach to investigate bear and other wildlife attacks. His final report helps FWP decide what to do with the attacking animal. It might be used in court for Endangered Species Act violations or other litigation, or it might disprove a false account.

The team has five members: Criminal Investigator Sommers, a wildlife biologist, and three wardens for security in case the animal returns.

While the wardens surveilled the area, Brian Sommers took in the scene. He found the log where the bear had been napping and Broste’s trail toward it through the brush.

“This bear’s laying there, hears a noise, looks up, sees him and is like, ‘Wow, this is way too close,’ and makes a straight line for Anders. When the bear hit him it knocks him backwards, so you see the scuff marks in the snow where his backpack and his body were pushed,” Sommers says.

Sommers photographed everything, then got down in the dirt to look for evidence.

“Hair, saliva, whatever we can find that’s going to possibly tell us who our offending animal is,” he says.

As Sommers puzzled together the moments leading up to Broste’s attack, Bergman was in the emergency room in Kalispell assessing Broste’s wounds: a dislocated right hand, torn ligaments in his left knee, and hands and feet pimpled with bite marks. While Bergman checked Broste’s injuries, he was also looking for something microscopic and insidious.

“A grizzly bear’s bite – basically they’ll bite into your tissue and kind of lift up and then let go – so the wound superficially looks like puncture wounds. So it doesn’t look like a very big deal, when in reality they’ve separated a large area of tissue deep, that is now contaminated with all that bacteria,” he says.

Bergman says bear teeth act like hypodermic needles. They can inject a host of bacteria deep into tissue.

“Gas gangrene, or clostridium for example is one of the bacteria in bears’ mouths. One of these more aggressive infections, it can be life and limb threatening,” he says.

Bergman’s mentor at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Dr. Larry Iwersen, worried about these bear-specific bugs, so in 1992, he partnered with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to sample bear mouths and build an antibiotic cocktail to give to bite victims when they first arrived at the ER. Bergman says Iwersen ran the sample again in 2013 to update his cocktail.

“We started to see more drug-resistant bacterias like methicillin-resistant streptococcus and staphylococcus species, so we’ve had to add a different antibiotic, vancomycin, to cover those. They also have some more waterborne bacteria. So if they’ve eaten fish or been in rivers, things like pseudomonas that require a different antibiotic called zoocin to treat, so it’s really a broad spectrum that covers the majority of those organisms,” Bergman says.

When a patient like Broste comes in, Bergman sets up an IV drip of the antibiotic cocktail right away. As a trauma team stabilizes the patient, Bergman swabs their wounds to ferret out any bacteria the cocktail doesn’t cover, and surgically washes cuts and gashes.

“It’s very time consuming that first day just looking at all the different bite wounds and managing them to clean out all the debris to try to prevent infection,” he says.

He’s also looking for bits of evidence to share with Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“We take a lot of measurements, a lot of photographs just to see how many bites they have, measure how wide the teeth are so the Fish, Wildlife and Parks guys can correlate that to any grizzly bear they catch or think might be involved in the attack,” Bergman says.

FWP investigator Brian Sommers tracked the bear that attacked Broste but didn’t find it, which he says is fairly common with surprise encounters like Broste’s. Later, he’d ship his evidence samples to a lab in British Columbia to identify the species, or in some cases, the exact animal if investigators have DNA from prior encounters with that bear.

Sommers also visited Broste at the hospital to interview him about what happened and see if Broste’s story matched what he pieced together from the scene. Sommers says victim narratives can range in detail.

“Trauma deals with people’s brains differently. So some people remember, hey, this was the first bite. This was the second bite. This was the third. This was the last. And other people may be like, ‘This was the first bite. This was the last bite. I don’t remember any of the ones in between.’

“It’s like it’s OK. It’s not a biggie, you know, because everybody deals with it different. And some people are like, ‘Yeah I remember the bear attacking me. That’s all I remember.’ That’s just the way it is. You have to take it at face value and go with it and try and, hopefully, have enough evidence and other places to piece everything together,” Sommers says.

He always recommends victims, their families and witnesses seek post-traumatic stress counseling to work through mental wounds.

“I think that’s the nature of being a human, is we all deal with everything different. We process things differently,” Sommers says.

After seven days in the hospital and a few months of physical therapy, Anders Broste is now on the mend. He and Sommers both say there’s little he could have done differently to prevent the attack. But he does plan to throw a space blanket and a personal satellite tracker into his pack next time he heads out.

“In northwest Montana, we live on the edge of wilderness,” Broste says. “So, giving yourself the ability to get help in those situations, I can thoroughly tell you, is what you want when you’re hurting. But go recreate. Get outside. It’s the best part. I can’t wait to get outside.”

Next time, he’ll also carry bear spray.

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