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The black hole
Shortly after recovering 726’s collar, Craig Whitman and Jim Smolczynski drove to Lima to interview two Wisconsin hunters who’d been spotted in the area around the time the bear vanished. Whitman later wrote up his entire account of the search for 726, a “collar retrieval” report obtained by the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and dispersed to the public. In his account, Whitman focuses on the behavior that made the two hunters, at least initially, prime suspects in 726’s disappearance.
“During our first encounter with the hunters on the trail, one became visibly nervous when we mentioned we were walking in on a bear collar on mortality,” Whitman wrote. “This same hunter was also visibly nervous, pale and sweaty during the interview. The first thing one of the hunters brought up when the radio collar in the creek at their camp was discussed was that since the collar was in the water there would be no fingerprints on it.”
Whitman’s report has become a detailed centerpiece in the story of 726’s disappearance. He documents a number of seemingly key details—the collar appeared to have been cut, a serrated knife was recovered near the location of the collar, a third set of boot prints in the adjacent campsite could not be accounted for. But Smolczynski cautions that, while Whitman was well meaning, the report was not written by an enforcement officer. It’s unfortunate that it got out, Smolczynski adds. Given the ongoing nature of the case, having such a wealth of investigative evidence go public can be devastating.
“You don’t want to compromise your case,” Smolczynski says. “You don’t want to send out too much information, because if something did happen … if somebody knows something, and now they know that we’re struggling with some information, they’re like, ‘Hey, cool.’”
Suspicion about the Wisconsin hunters waned quickly. Smolczynski says the two were extremely cooperative with the investigation, even going so far as to let officials search their vehicles and gear. Smolczynski calls that “a pretty good sign. If they’re hiding something, if they’d had bloody knives or kept a part…but they had no problem with us going through all their stuff.”
Whitman’s report eventually concludes that the collar was dumped in the creek days before the Wisconsin hunters even pitched camp and instead turns to another curious piece of evidence. On Sept. 25, Whitman returned to the Odell Creek area with Bonnie Whitman, a law enforcement ranger with the National Park Service. The two were accompanied by Bonnie’s evidence dog, a German shepherd named Gator. They searched the area where 726 had last given off a live signal. The area, well within the sheep station’s Odell Creek allotment, showed signs of recent sheep grazing. Whitman wrote that on a ridge overlooking the area, “we found where the sheep herder had been stationed near the flock. At the top of the hill Bonnie and Gator located one new spent rifle cartridge on top of the dead grass.” Whitman turned the cartridge over to Smolczynski as evidence.
“He found a shell casing, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything at the time,” Smolczynski says. “That’s a hunting area and it was kind of an older shell casing. But they found it in an area where some sheep were grazing, so he collected it.”
While Whitman determined that “it is unknown if the cartridge has any relationship to GB726 at all,” the spent shell’s proximity to the sheep herder’s location painted the sheep station as the next suspect in line, at least among USSES critics. The USSES stated last year that none of its employees had reported a conflict with a grizzly, but nonprofit Western Watersheds noted that investigators never questioned sheep station staff regarding 726.
“In all fairness to the sheep experiment station, if they are innocent, they’ve just been blackballed,” Smolczynski says. “That’s just not how you go about it … That’s one of the things I will say can kind of ruin some of our cases is that once those things get public, it’s hard to find an impartial jury if you do get something and you have to go to a jury trial. Sometimes that can really bite you.”
Regardless, there remains no trace of 726. Frank van Manen, leader of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team to which Whitman belongs, says the bear’s disappearance was never treated as a mortality report, merely a collar retrieval. But the lack of a carcass hasn’t dampened the belief among some that 726 is dead, and that someone is to blame. Andrew Gorder, with Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, understands the problem of drawing conclusions about an ongoing investigation. He and Cottonwood’s executive director, John Meyer, say they’ve never officially declared that the USSES is to blame. “But at the same time, I think a reasonable person could reach the conclusion that this bear was killed on sheep station property,” Gorder says.
“And quite possibly by sheep station employees,” Meyer adds.
Cottonwood is currently offering a $6,500 reward for “information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for killing male grizzly #726 on the USDA Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains.”