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Editor's Note: The following story contains graphic images of injuries caused by a grizzly bear. Viewer discretion is advised.
ISLAND PARK, Idaho (EastIdahoNews) — As a momma grizzly bear charged Tom Whitney on Friday morning, he said to himself, "This very well could be it for me."
The husband and father of three girls from Maryland visits Island Park every year. He has run a trail off Stamp Meadow Road for the past several years. Although most of Whitney's morning runs this week were uneventful, it quickly became apparent Friday morning was different.
"I noticed on my left side there was this furry patch, and I immediately stopped, looked up and made eye contact with what I quickly realized was a grizzly bear," Whitney told EastIdahoNews.
Within a split second, the bear charged at Whitney. Its heavy paws thumped on the ground. As the branches and twigs snapped, Whitney had to decide — should he run, climb a tree or make noise?
"Before I knew it, the grizzly was 10 feet in front of me," Whitney said. "I was trying to position myself in between some trees trying to outsmart it. … After a couple of seconds of realizing that was not going to happen because it is a grizzly bear, I decided to play dead."
I said a quick little prayer hoping things would de-escalate, and next thing I knew, the bear took off.
Although the bear that Whitney estimated between 350 and 400 pounds began to swing its claws and bite him, he lay in the fetal position and covered his head and neck. The bear's cub stayed a short distance away from the attack.
"All I could hear is the growling and I honestly thought, 'What a way to go, and this might have been it,'" Whitney said. "I said a quick little prayer hoping things would de-escalate, and next thing I knew, the bear took off."
Not knowing the severity of his injuries, Whitney got up, then walked in the opposite direction of the bear to Stamp Meadow Road. As Whitney made it to a paved road, a passerby gave Whitney a ride to the cabin where he and the rest of his family stayed.
"I do kind of feel like I was very fortunate and had some sort of spiritual connection with this grizzly bear," Whitney said. "It easily could have been much worse and could have done far more damage and for whatever reason I was fortunate to get up and get to safety."
Once back at the cabin, Whitney called the authorities who came, checked him out and urged him to stop by Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg. While the bear attacked Whitney, his injuries consisted of puncture wounds and scratches from the animal's teeth and claws.
"I've loved grizzly bears for all my life, and I never thought this would happen to me," Whitney said. "Things do happen. … Definitely respect wildlife because they were here first and we're kind of infringing on their territory."
The National Park Service says as of 2019, 728 grizzly bears live with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The number has grown from 136 in 1975, roaming a portion of Montana, Wyoming and eastern Idaho. With the number of bears much higher and more tourists in their territory, it only increases the chances of encounters.
"Be aware of your surroundings," Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Roger Philips said. "If you do see a (grizzly) bear, the near presence of it doesn't necessarily put you in danger, but you need to see what is happening with the bear."
Fish and Game officials say don't run when you encounter a bear because it sometimes can trigger the bear to attack. Philips also said to always carry bear spray and know how to use it.
"You certainly don't want to be trying to read instructions, and you're having an encounter with a bear," Philips said.
Just as Whitney did Friday morning, Philips says those being attacked by a bear should drop to the ground, cover their head and neck and wait. In most cases, Philips says the bear will take a couple of swipes of its claws then leave. He also said it is important to wait a moment to let the bear walk far enough away it won't come back again.
Of course that doesn't always happen. On Tuesday, a grizzly bear attacked and killed a cyclist camping in western Montana. The Associated Press reports the bear dragged Leah Davis Lokan, 65, of Chico, California, out of her tent and mauled her to death That bear was later killed by by authorities, because it acted aggressive toward humans.
That is not likely going to happen to the bear that attacked Whitney since it was defending its young.
"I did call up the Fish and Game services and asked if they were planning on doing anything to the bear," Whitney said. "Luckily, they don't plan on trapping it or putting it down, which really makes me happy. … I was there on its territory. … It was the perfect recipe that could have been a fatal encounter … I just can't say it enough I'm very fortunate."
EastIdahoNews.com editor Nate Sunderland contributed to this article.