By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - An autopsy shows that a Nevada man believed to have been fatally mauled by a grizzly bear in northwestern Montana was instead shot and killed by his hunting partner, authorities said Friday.
Steve Stevenson, 39, of Winnemucca, Nevada, was mauled on September 16 by a grizzly bear that had just been shot and wounded by Stevenson's friend, Ty Bell, 20, also of Winnemucca. Bell opened fire on the bear again when it turned on his buddy.
"In attempt to stop the grizzly bear's attack on Stevenson, hunting partner Ty Bell shot the bear multiple times. One of those rounds struck Stevenson in the chest," Lincoln County, Montana, Undersheriff Brent Faulkner said in a statement.
Faulkner said an autopsy by the Montana State Crime Lab showed Stevenson died of a single gunshot wound to the chest.
Stevenson and Bell had paired off as part of a four-man hunting party seeking black bears in the rugged Purcell Mountains that straddle northeastern Idaho and northwestern Montana.
Bell mistakenly identified a young male grizzly as the quarry he was licensed to kill and shot the bear, which sought refuge in a heavily wooded area. The two men tracked the grizzly, which then attacked Stevenson and was shot repeatedly before being killed by Bell. It was one of those shots that caused Stevenson's death, authorities said.
"It was a very unfortunate, tragic accident where bad timing and the snap judgment on the initial shot at the bear came to a head and someone lost his life," Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe told Reuters.
Preliminary findings from the investigation showed the grizzly was on top of Stevenson at one point and that the animal was dragging him, Bowe said.
Bear experts said the case of mistaken identity will reemphasize programs designed to ensure hunters can distinguish between black bears and their hump-shouldered cousins.
A struggling population of about 30 grizzlies, which are listed as threatened in the Lower 48 states under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, roam the mountain forests where the hunting accident happened.
While hunting the protected bears is banned, the law allows them to be killed if they threaten human life.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)