A glance at the finger-length claws curling off the paws of a riled-up grizzly bear sow preceded a decision Noah Kolis wishes he had never had to make.

“I remember glancing down at its claws, back up at its face and that’s when fight or flight kicked in,” Kolis said.

In the days since he has gone over time and again what happened — and what he could have changed.

“I honestly don’t know what made me grab a gun as opposed to bear spray,” Kolis said. “I remember thinking multiple times, ‘Just grab a can of bear spray.’ I didn’t, and just grabbed the revolver instead.”

On a cloudy afternoon in late May, Kolis was guiding three Chicago buddies on a bachelor party hike to some chimney rock formations. They started hiking from Kolis’ childhood home in Cora, near the road to Green River Lakes at the base of the Wind River Mountains.

The 23-year-old Jackson resident had seen grizzlies there before but had never dealt with an angry ursine mom up close. Suddenly his dog was being chased and then, like that, he was staring down a bear and faced a decision: shoot or not.

Noah Kolis

“I hate myself for killing her, I really do,” Noah Kolis said. The 23-year-old Cora native shot a grizzly sow in late May after it had charged to within 15 feet of him while he hiked near New Fork Lakes.

“I was just thinking, ‘Don’t make me do this, don’t make me do this,’” Kolis said.

As he scanned the ground where the grizzly stood on all fours about a dozen feet away, the sight of the claws spurred the thought “Those will kill you.” His gut told him a second charge could be imminent. Adrenaline pumping, “my mind was quiet,” he said, as he then calmly pulled the trigger on his Smith & Wesson Model 460V revolver. The bullet struck the stationary bear in the cheek, and she fell.

Potential harm to himself averted, Kolis started “cursing up a storm,” mad at the situation and himself, as the bloodied bruin rolled down a steep hillside in the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Boulder Basin. He shot at least three more times to end the sow’s misery, knowing the gravity of what had just happened.

“With the pull of my finger,” he said, “I just killed three bears.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials investigated the scene after the shooting but could not find the two cubs of the year that been with the approximately 7-year-old sow, which wore a tracking collar due to previous dustups with livestock. Kolis’ party heard the cubs calling for their mother about a half-hour after her demise, but neither youngster was seen again.

Game and Fish investigators also cleared Kolis of wrongdoing. John Lund, the agency’s Pinedale regional wildlife supervisor, was among those who visited the site in the field. He said that although the case is still open, the state has made a preliminary finding.

“We have determined that it was self-defense,” Lund said, “and we’re not prosecuting it.”

Kolis, who works as a Teton/Jackson County Recreation Center lifeguard, approached the News&Guide about the shooting, hoping it could be a lesson for others. His party was large and carried two canisters of bear spray, both recommended strategies for avoiding lethal encounters. But in other ways the group’s decisions likely contributed to the shooting that orphaned two young cubs.

The bear’s fatal run-in with the group occurred around 2 p.m. Thursday, May 31, on a mostly cloudy day within a mile of where Kolis had twice seen grizzlies — his only two previous encounters, which happened six to eight years ago.

The apex carnivores, protected by the Endangered Species Act until last year, began showing up in the Upper Green River drainage in the late 1990s, according to the News&Guide archives. Two decades later it’s a densely occupied area. A chronic summertime clash between grizzlies and cattle in the region attests to the abundance of bears.

Kolis knew that. There have been grizzlies in his parents’ yard, snacking on raspberries, and he sees tracks routinely, including the same morning, left by a sow and two cubs.

When the four-person bachelor party took off to trek into the Boulder Basin, just north of New Fork Lakes, they embarked by walking away from Kolis’ parents’ doorstep. Eventually they branched off a forest road off-trail. Scrambling upslope, the hikers had become strung out, with two people 50 yards ahead of the other pair.

Kolis’ Chesapeake Bay retriever mix, Lily, had trotted ahead, and at one point he could see his pooch was intrigued by something. Her body language suggested it was a larger critter, like a moose or a horse.

“I look up the slope a little bit and I see something moving, and I’m like, “Holy crap, that’s a bear,’” he said.

They screamed at Lily, but not before she’d roamed within about 10 feet of the bears. It was too late. The sow momentary slipped behind a rock but then charged downhill at the dog like she had been shot out of a cannon.

“I was surprised, exceedingly surprised, how fast that bear could move,” Kolis said. “Don’t underestimate them.”

The rapidly descending grizzly caused the unarmed Midwestern groomsman who hiked alongside Kolis to bolt himself, among the No. 1 no-nos of what to do when a bear is charging. The group’s two cans of bear spray were both with the men who trailed 50 yards behind.

Kolis knew better and stood his ground. His presence caused the bruin to swing in his direction, diverting from its downhill pursuit of Lily, who escaped with a sprained lower leg but nothing worse. Then the female grizzly stopped, at a distance investigators put at 10 to 15 feet, and Kolis fired. The whole sequence of events, from Lily’s approach to the first gunshot, consumed what Kolis guessed was 15 to 20 seconds.

The “extremely close” proximity of the grizzly to Kolis was a factor in why the shooting was classified as self-defense, Game and Fish’s Lund said.

“Is it safe to speculate what it was going to do after that?” Lund said. “That’s incredibly close to have a grizzly bear that just charged you.”

Lund did not pass judgment on the role Lily may have played in triggering the attack, and he pointed out that there is no requirement to leash dogs in the area.

“It’s always possible that they would have walked right up on the thing if the dog were not there,” Lund said. “We can’t speculate. We don’t know what would have happened if the dog wasn’t there.

“I think it’s important to highlight that they did several things right,” he said. “They were in a group of people — it wasn’t just one person alone. They did have spray, but just weren’t in a position to use it at that time. They certainly took precautions.”

Steve Primm of People and Carnivores, a nonprofit that educates the public about coexisting with grizzlies, said the group appeared to have lacked preparation for hiking in grizzly country. The hikers should have rehearsed what to do and talked through different scenarios, he said.

“Mentally rehearsing those things would have really, really been a big help,” Primm said. “But remembering myself at 23 years old, I probably wouldn’t have done it either.”

Giving in to the impulse to run could have been disastrous, he said, and the off-leash dog that didn’t recall immediately likely played a role in the deadly run-in, he said.

“That could have turned out very differently if the other guys with the bear spray held their ground and stayed with them,” Primm said. “But I’m not armchair quarterbacking this. Ten to 15 feet is really close to be to a grizzly bear. It’s just unfortunate that what he had in his hand was a revolver, and not bear spray.”

Bear spray, he said, would have been “really, really effective” at the short distance, especially given that the grizzly wasn’t moving.

Kolis knows he erred.

“I hate myself for killing her, I really do,” he said in an account he emailed to the News&Guide. “When I called my parents afterwards, and when the game wardens were walking through the scene, I was crying. Not due to shock, or the adrenaline, but due to the fact that I felt like a monster for killing her and, in effect, her cubs, too.”

Before the last day of May the largest thing he’d killed was a rabbit, struck accidentally while driving. He’s a believer in bear spray, and usually carries it. If he was reading the news reports about someone else shooting a grizzly, he too “would be one of those people” blasting decisions that were made.

“You can say all you want about what you’d do in a hypothetical situation, but until you’re in that situation you don’t know what you’re going to do,” he said.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, env@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGenviro.

(34) comments

John Lorimer

I am glad you and your friends are all unharmed Noah

G Benson

Kill or be killed. Mr. Kolis, you made the right decision.

Benjamin Sinclair

Noah, i hope this awful experience will prompt you to change your relationship with guns...we both know that they play a very large role in your life. It was courageous of you to come forward with your mea culpa, but at the same time, for you to say that you didn't know why you picked up a gun instead of bear spray at the outset of the hike is totally disingenuous, given that you surround yourself with loaded weapons and talk at work about going out to kill something. Please be honest with yourself, you knew there were Grizz in this area, and you knew the guys in back had bear spray while you were in the front with your .45. This was a perfect setup for the death of that sow. As to the other comments that it was simply a choice of who would have die, you or the bear, that's utter b******* because no one who'd want to avoid a bad encounter like this would choose to bring a dog into an area where they already know a griz is active. My unsolicited advice for managing your guilt and remorse is to think seriously about how to make amends for your senseless and entirely predictable killing of that mother bear. Maybe offer to partner with the Forest Service at their public Bear Aware talks. Maybe make donations to a group like Vital Ground or Wyoming Wildlife Advocates that work to preserve the grizzly's future. I believe that you have some serious karma to deal with, and that implies dealing with it seeiously. Your known attachment to guns, though it has given you a greater sense of personal security, has come at a terrible cost in guilt and regret. Admitting your mistake was a good first step, but now, along with taking the opportunity to work through those feelings, you have the grave responsibility to atone for the death of that sentient and sacred animal, who was just minding her own business, in her own home. Ditch the guns, do something meaningful for wild bears, and create some inner peace.

Maximilian Werner

This is intense. That's one thing I will say about wildlife: It brings out the best and the worst in people. Your post is clearly an example of the former. Love it.

Chad guenter

Mr. Sinclair: Not everyone shares your beliefs and superstitions.

Benjamin Sinclair

Im glad we had a chance to talk. Dont let folks in Pinedale drag you down over this. Put it behind you by making it right going forward. People will show you compassion once you starr that process. Compassion for yourself begins with forgiving yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Keep talking honestly with those closest to you, and feel the weight begin to lift. Honesty & integrity always pay off. You're on the right path!

Maximilian Werner

This is very interesting. One the one hand I really appreciate this young man's willingness to share his story. Took a lot of courage, not just to tell the story, but to take responsibility for his role in this disaster. And as the most experienced member of his party, his responsibility is significant. As the article writer suggests, Lily likely brought the bear back. This misstep, among others, including the location of the bear spray in the rear of the party, clearly places the responsibility on the hikers. I don't think there is any denying it. Primm has a tough and important job: Education (and preparation) are crucial to minimizing conflicts. Unless humans really want to learn something, they won't. It's our nature to take the easy way. But this sounds scary. A cautionary tale for us all. Spread the word.

Jeff Larson

Guilt my foot - it's still just a wild animal.

Frank Smith

Bear spray is more effective protection than a handgun.

Konrad Lau

One hears a similar statement about Tasers and humans. Sadly, a determined adversary is rarely turned from an attack without mechanical intervention (i.e. projectiles). Bear spay is fine if one walks up upon a bruin minding his own business. A mother with cubs or a boar guarding a larder is a completely different ball of wax.

Chad guenter

Mr. Smith: On a windy day, bear spray could have zero effect, and in this case the handgun was effective, no human was harmed.

Jay Westemeier

Studies have shown that bear spray is more effective than firearms, even on a windy day. A recent study in bear country outside of National Parks has shown that hunters or individuals who have shot at grizzly bears with guns have generally ended up with serious injuries or worse about 40% of the time.

Konrad Lau

I find it interesting that many folks will accept at face value "results" of a study funded by folks looking for a specific outcome (i.e. the ban hunting crowd or the bear spray manufacturers association)..
To say any spray aerosol is "more effective" than a firearm completely ignores the facts on the ground...primarily that a dead beast can kill no one after the point of contact.

Various groups make the same claim about tasers. If that were actually the fact, police agencies like San Francisco and Philadelphia would not allow officers to carry firearms.

Jay Westemeier

Your logic is greatly flawed Mr. Lau. The gun vs. bear spray studies done by independent agencies are based on real, on-the-ground encounters. They aren't based on theory like yours. The studies and results aren't just coming from anti-gun or wildlife advocates. There are multiple results from reputable agencies who's main purpose is to educate and protect people. Your claims of firearms being more effective to deter and/or survive an aggressive bear encounter is just plain wrong and preaching it to the masses doesn't serve anyone who's really concerned for their well being in the outdoors. Make your own individual choice, but don't try to disparage concrete evidence just to satisfy your disdain for anti-gun or wildlife advocates.

Chad guenter

Mr. Westemeier: Here is a recent story out of Alaska with a Black bear killing someone and then coming back multiple times after being sprayed.
https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/2017/06/22/anchorage-woman-27-idd-as-victim-of-fatal-interior-black-bear-mauling/

Frank Smith

Fifty five years ago, working as a firefighter in California forests, I killed rattlesnakes. I don't regret that, but ten years later I realized that they contribute to our ecology. When I came upon them in my properties in the mountains or the desert a decade later, I captured them and turned them over to the police who took them to be used in an anti-venom project at UCLA which I felt was better than . I've killed a couple of other animals, one deer that had fallen onto the Tioga Pass road in Yosemite and put it out of its misery by cuttings it jugular vein. In Alaska, I also hit a moose calf that was dashing across the road in darkness to get to its mother. An oncoming motorist had put on his or her high beams, blinding me and the calf dashed right behind his van, in front of me. I had slowed to 35 mph before it happened, because so many moose were browsing near the highways that day. I felt terrible about that, but the meat was salvaged by volunteers contacted by police. I'm a gun owner, but I insist that my wife carries bear spray when she walks with a neighbor who carries a pistol, thanks to our neighborhood black bears and cougars. I lived in the Alaska interior and Arctic coast, where we had occasional encounters with black, griz and polar bears. The spray is actually more effective in avoiding an attack than is a pistol.

Liz Shield

Write a book.

Jay Westemeier

There are already plenty out there that say the same thing Ms. Shield. Search, read and educate yourself on the subject, if you dare.

Konrad Lau

sorrow

Konrad Lau

I can only imagine the sorry, shame and guilt this poor fellow would be feeling now if, he had not made the decision to protect himself and his friends and one or two of his buddies had been mauled and disfigured for life, permanently crippled or even killed.

I clear perspective on priorities is needed throughout life's ordeal. He made the right choice.

rich quinlan

This young man should be very thankful that he was able to make the response that possibly saved his life. Most react in flight which would have been his demise. That he had his wits enough to respond is amazing be it spray or weapon. I won't quibble about method.

Chad guenter

Mr. Kolis: If it makes it any easier for you, think of it this way. There is no instance in nature where animals or humans react to a LETHAL threat with non-lethal means. You made a NATURAL decision. Kill or be killed, Period!

Maximilian Werner

I appreciate your hearing your views, Chad, but again, I'm not convinced you're thinking this through. For one thing, humans are also animals. And your comment implies that we are incapable of modifying our behavior. We can and do react non-lethally if doing so proves more effective. Our base instinct may be to kill or be killed, but we are not the sum of our instincts. This article has less to do with what Kolis did but why he did it. They are separate issues. Your view of kill or be killed is black and white and as such offers no hope going forward, no possibility of behaving in ways that protect bears and humans.

Barb Jost

I feel sorry for Mr. Kiki’s myself but if he can’t use the bear spray maybe he shouldn’t have the gun. We know bear spray works. Now a mom and two cubs will pay the price.

Chad guenter

""""""""but if he can’t use the bear spray maybe he shouldn’t have the gun."""""""

Ms. Jost, your comment is incomprehensible.

Konrad Lau

"Liked"

Jeff Larson

Perhaps you can hike up into that area and offer yourself up as a meal for these poor defenseless creatures.

Caroline Haines

Thank you for having the courage to talk about this incident. It is very educational and will definitely help others learn about encounters with bears. And please do forgive yourself!

Frank Smith

Well put.

John Sinson

Better her than you brother. Good shot.

Jay Westemeier

I think you're missing the point issued by Mr. Kolis. He isn't struggling with the fact that he chose to defend himself. It's his choice of using a gun instead of bear spray that has lead to his remorse. I'm guessing that encouragement from you for using his weapon isn't going to make him feel much better. He obviously respects wildlife and admitted that he feels he made the wrong choice of using a gun.

Jay Westemeier

Many learn the hard way. A plan for a joyful hike with dog and friends went terribly wrong. Hopefully this kid will use his first hand experience to teach many who tend to take our wilderness and wildlife for granted.

Chad guenter

I hope Mr. Kolis is able to put this incident behind him, not dwell on for too much longer. Saying/thinking "I hate myself" over anything is not healthy. It was a life or death encounter, he protected his very existence.

Ken Chison

Well, let the comments begin. Every wannabe back country bear expert reading this will comment. I feel sorry for the kid. Nobody ever wants to be put in a situation like that, but, they are all alive. These are fierce animals and alot of people will be using our back country again this year. I am sure there will be more stories to come.

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