On morning of July 25, 2018, Bridger Petrini was out near the Colorado border, working his dogs for the upcoming New Mexico bear season. He had purchased his professional guide service eight years earlier from his father, who started it in 1985. Bear season would open in less than three weeks, and the dogs had to be in shape for it.
He had some important appointments in Raton, the nearest town, set up for that afternoon.
He was within a quarter mile of his house, when the dogs unexpectedly discovered a bear and took off. He and the dogs were so close to the house, his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter saw and heard the dogs as the charging bear ran by.
Bridger’s son called and asked if he could come with his father to get the dogs. Bridger told his son to run the quarter mile to where he was and together they started after the dogs and the bear in a Kawasaki Mule.
A little later, his wife Janelle called. Bridger’s sister was visiting and had never seen a bear in the wild. His wife suggested he come back and pick his sister up, but Bridger said no. He had to get the dogs off the bear and back to the house in order to make his appointments.
He told them if they followed in his Toyota Tacoma hunting rig, they might be able to see the bear. So Bridger’s sister, his wife, his daughter and their other two small children piled into the pickup and started after Bridger, his son, the dogs and the bear.
The mesa isn’t very large. The temperature, even at 6500 feet, was in the upper 80s. The running bear and dogs heated up and slowed down quickly. They were fighting on a little bench, right under the rimrock. It was strewn with refrigerator-sized boulders, with some cedar trees, good-sized for the area, but too small for a bear to climb.
Complacency is the enemy of everyone who works in dangerous situations. People do things hundreds of times. They start taking shortcuts. Not to be confused with a hiker carrying a canister of bear spray or pepper spray, Bridger normally carries a GLOCK 20 in a Galco holster when he’s hunting in bear country with clients.
That morning, though, he wasn’t planning on hunting bears. And he had no desire to shoot that bear. There was no client with him. He had to get the dogs off the bear to make his appointments in town. He’d taken dogs off of bears and mountain lions hundreds of times before.
His wife and family caught up with him. He told Janelle to park the vehicles in a little draw while he went up and called off the dogs.
As an afterthought, he took the GLOCK 20 10mm pistol from his vehicle and shoved it in his waistband behind his cowboy belt. It was loaded with 175 grain Hornady Critical Duty FlexLock loads. The magazine only had 10 or 12 rounds in it. A few months earlier, he had heard the theory of “spring set” and decided not to keep the magazine fully loaded.
The dogs and bear were, by the sound, 150 yards away. As he left the vehicles, his 13-year-old daughter tried to follow him but was called back by her mother.
To prevent bear attacks, hunters usually worry about the wind and the bear seeing them. In Bridger’s extensive experience, when a bear sees or smells a human, they retreat. So Bridger expected that bear to run.
Bridger moved in toward the bear and the dogs. The boulders made it easier to hop from one to the next, instead of trying to navigate between them. Bridger hopped to another boulder, moved around a cedar tree and saw the bear and the dogs. There are no grizzly bears in New Mexico. This bear was a big cinnamon-colored black bear boar, tipping the scales at nearly 400 lbs. (In western United States such as Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Colorado and other parts of North America, where primary food sources are in mountain meadows and open forest, more than half of the black bears are actually colored brown, cinnamon, or blond.) This one was cinnamon and extremely close, fewer than 20 feet away.
Because of its unusual color, Bridger’s first thought was to get a video. It would be an incredible image. Big cinnamon bears aren’t common. The bear could run at any moment, once he saw or smelled the man, so Bridger grabbed his phone.
Apparently, that bear never read the bear-behavior rulebook. It didn’t run. The bear saw Bridger, turned toward him, and flattened its ears back along its head. Its eyes locked on Bridger. He’d watched hundreds of bears in similar situations and he knew he’d been targeted. He dropped the phone and snatched his self-defense handgun from his belt.
A lot happened very fast, but for Bridger, everything seemingly slowed down as he went into tachypsychia. It’s a common occurrence in high-stress life-or-death situations. The mind speeds up and events appear to be happening in slow motion. In reality, the person is acting faster than they ever have before.
The bear was coming for him and there was no time for a warning shot. Bridger elected not to aim for the head because he didn’t want to hit one of his dogs. He triggered two or three shots aimed at the bear’s body. The bear spun, snapping at the wounds, about six feet away.
Bridger decided to retreat. He turned and hopped to the next boulder, then the next. He was mid-air to the third when he saw dogs moving past him.
In his fast-mind state, he realized that this was bad. As he landed and turned, the big GLOCK in his hand, and saw the bear coming at him like an over-sized NFL linebacker with claws and big, pointy teeth.
Before he could fire again, the bear hit him. They went over the edge of the shelf together, tumbling down a steep, rocky slope in mortal combat.
Bridger does not remember shooting during the fall. But his family found shell casings down the trail of broken tree limbs and brush. He knew the GLOCK was his lifeline. His right hand was skinned and bruised, but he held on with a death-defying grip.
Bear and man stopped downslope, wedged into brush and boulders. Bridger could feel the bear and frantically attempted to disentangle himself. The bear reared erect, jaws ready to strike. Bridger shot him at extremely close range, in the front of his chest before falling/sliding further down the slope. The bear pursued him. He screamed at Janelle to stay away.
Bridger tried to kick the bear away as it tried to get at his upper body. But he couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting his own legs.
The bear dodged a kick, and grabbed Bridger’s right inner thigh in its jaws, lifting him like a dog lifting a rabbit. Bridger shoved the muzzle of the GLOCK against the bear’s neck, trying to shatter its spine and shut the bear down. He fired.
The bear released his lower thigh, then grabbed his calf, just below the knee. The shot missed the spine. Man and bear are still moving fast, but in Bridger’s hyper-aware state, time slowed. He saw an opportunity for a headshot and, as a last resort, pressed the trigger on the GLOCK.
Later, Bridger found bear hair between the guide rod and the slide of the G20 pistol. The hair prevented the slide from returning into battery. Bridger knew he should still have ammunition left in the magazine, so he racked the slide in good faith and saw a live round eject in slow motion.
Fractions of a second later, another opportunity for a head shot presented itself. The bear ripped at his leg. As the bear tried to tear off his calf muscle, Bridger saw his chance and pressed the trigger.
Man and bear went down together, rolling and sliding a bit further down the slope.
The bear was dead. It was just before noon.
Bridger was lying head downwards on a steep rocky slope, on his belly. The bear was upslope of him, bunched up. It was nearly 400 lbs of flesh, claws and fur, with its teeth still locked onto Bridger’s right calf muscle. Its head was twisted behind his knee.
He was trapped, wedged on the slope between boulders and brush. Moving brought excruciating pain that almost, but not quite, rendered him unconscious. He could reach back and feel the bear’s jaws and teeth, and something slimy trapped inside the jaws — his calf muscle. He couldn’t release his leg from the bear’s jaws or shift his position.
Janelle had heard the shots and his screams. She knew something was very wrong. Their daughter started to run to rescue her daddy, and her mother stopped her. All four children were with her.
Janelle shouted “Where’s the bear!?”
“It’s dead!” Bridger yells. From pistol draw to the last shot was less than 20 seconds.
Janelle and their daughter came up the slope from the vehicles. They couldn’t unlock the bear’s jaws from his leg. The slope, brush, rocks and 400-lb body of the black bear rendered it impossible. The muscle of Bridger’s calf had been twisted, locking muscle, teeth, and jaws together. Janelle called law enforcement, emergency responders, her brother Brad, and friends.
Devout Christians, the family prayed as everyone attempted to disentangle man and bear.
Help arrived in about 20 minutes, according to Janelle.
Five strong men couldn’t unlock the bear from Bridger’s leg. It was a combination of position, slope, gravity, leverage, and the wedge effect of boulders and brush.
Then, Bridger’s brother-in-law Brad cut the Gordian knot.
He used Bridger’s pocket knife, a Benchmade mini-Griptilian (with a blade less than three inches), to begin to cut off the bear’s head. He cut down to the bone. A game warden had a folding saw they used to cut through the bear’s spinal column.
The men finally managed to separate the bear’s head from its body and then from Bridger’s calf. The leg muscle had started turning gray.
Bridger was not unfamiliar with mountain rescues. The previous January, a helicopter had crashed near where the bear encounter occurred and Bridger was the first on the scene. Two of the crash victims had died in his arms. Only one of the six people in the helicopter survived. Bridger saw things he told me a man should never see and had vowed at that point to never to ride in a helicopter.
So as he heard the rescue copter come in, Bridger became an unhappy camper and told everyone within earshot that “I am not going on that thing!”
The helicopter landed as shock set in. Bridger started convulsing. Bridger told one of the flight paramedics from the helicopter that he couldn’t ride in that machine.
She hooked up an intravenous drip as they transferred him from the mountain litter to a gurney. “Let me help you get more comfortable,” she said. She reached across and fastened the chest strap, leaned over, lips close to his ear, and said, “Honey, you don’t have a choice.”
The morphine hit, the world changed, and Bridger said, “Let’s go!”
The original plan was for the rescue copter to fly to Denver, but a storm was in the way. So they rerouted to Albuquerque, skirting weather with quite a bit of turbulence. It was a fortuitous detour, as Albuquerque has one of the top trauma centers in the Southwest and experience with animal attacks.
Bridger spent four hours in surgery and received more than 200 stitches.
Normally Bridger would be out with clients and dogs on the opening day of bear season in New Mexico. This year, he’s laid up in bed, when not undergoing painful physical therapy.
But he’s alive and and considering the merits of heavier, deeper-penetrating bullets in 10mm cartridges designed for bear defense, to carry in his GLOCK.
With luck, Bridger, his family, and his business will be serving hunters, and avoiding close encounters with black bears, for decades to come.
For more on black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, and how to survive grizzly attacks, click here.
For federal law on managing bear encounters in the wild, including National Parks, click here.
For information on the Endangered Species Act, click here.
©2018 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.