Bear Attack
Government agents help Don Wilhelm pack up his campsite at the Soda Butte Campground Wednesday afternoon, July 28, 2010, after the campground was evacuated following a fatal bear attack in the early morning hours.

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COOKE CITY - One man is dead and two people are injured after at least one bear attacked campers early Wednesday morning just northeast of Yellowstone National Park, Montana wildlife officials said.

The bear or bears attacked the Soda Butte campground around 2 a.m., tearing through the dark, wooded campsites five miles north of the park, witnesses said.

The marauding bear or bears killed one man, bit another man on the calf and tore a woman's arm, leaving deep lacerations. The two surviving victims were taken to a hospital in Cody, Wyo.

"There were three separate attacks in three separate campsites, which is unusual," Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said.

Wildlife officials said they could not confirm whether the attack was the work of one or multiple bears or what species of bear was involved.

"Right now, what we're doing more than anything is trying our best to get the bear or bears captured," Aasheim said Wednesday afternoon, adding that five traps had been set up around the campground, which is in the Gallatin National Forest.

Officials declined to release the names or ages of the victims, except to say that the dead man was middle age, and the injured man was in his 20s.

Paige and Don Wilhelm, of Fort Worth, Texas, said they were camping in a tent next to where the attacks occurred with their 12- and 9-year-old children.

Don got up to go to the bathroom just before 2 a.m., and he, Paige and their 12-year-old son were awake when they heard a woman scream at about 2 a.m. Their 9-year-old slept through the ordeal.

Paige Wilhelm said she heard "one bear and it was just attacking various tents."

The injured man, she said, punched a bear in the nose and scared it off after it bit him in the leg.

Hours later, officials from the Park County Sheriff's Office and FWP were still trying to piece together what had happened in the 10-acre campground before dawn.

The man and the woman who were injured were staying at separate campsites, but the campsites were close to one another, Jones said.

The man who was killed was staying alone at a campsite further away, although she would not say whether he was found there or elsewhere.

And it's still unknown whether the man was killed before or after the other two campers were attacked, FWP Warden Capt. Sam Sheppard said.

"Probably, we'll never know," he said.

There is no cell phone service in that area, so campers who heard the attacks walked up the road to Cooke City to alert authorities. After Park County Sherriff's deputies arrived, campers were advised to stay in their cars or RVs until the area was deemed safe enough to evacuate them, Jones said.

The injured woman was taken by ambulance to the hospital, the man by private vehicle.

The campers were escorted back into the campground later in the day to collect their belongings. The campground, which has 27 sites and is run by the U.S. Forest Service, was then closed to the public.

Food was not a cause of Wednesday's attacks, Jones said.

"The investigation has determined that there was no food or food-storage issue involved with this," she said.

She also said there had been no recent reports of problem bears in the area.

In 2008, a grizzly bear bit a man on the hand at the Soda Butte campground. Sheppard said, "We dealt with that situation in 2008 and got the bear."

A response team that includes FWP officials and bear experts was collecting bear scat, hair and other evidence late Wednesday in an attempt to figure out what kind of bear and how many were involved.

Campgrounds at Colter and Chief Joseph were also closed due to the incident.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.

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