By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A bear, possibly a grizzly, attacked an Idaho elk hunter armed with a bow and arrows who may have startled the animal near Yellowstone National Park on Saturday, wildlife officials said.
The 40-year-old man was airlifted to a hospital suffering from a broken arm and wounds to his hand that required surgery, but his injuries were not life-threatening, said Gregg Losinski, regional conservation educator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The attack was the latest in an unusual spate of bear attacks in the Yellowstone area this year. Losinski said the man and a hunting partner were seeking elk near Island Park, Idaho, south of the Montana border, when they startled a bear.
The bear charged at the hunter, who was nearer the animal than his partner. The partner used a bear spray canister, which shoots an aerosol mixture of hot pepper, as the animal retreated.
Idaho conservation officers said early indications suggested the bear was a grizzly but they were awaiting confirmation from DNA evidence gathered from the scene.
Wildlife officials decided not to capture the animal, based on the description of the attack provided by the hunters, both from Island Park, and an investigation of the scene.
"It's very clear from the incident that the bear was surprised and ran away. It did not intend to kill or consume the men," said Losinski, who is a member of a federal-state task force on grizzly bears.
Thousands of black bears roam Idaho but their out-sized, hump-shouldered grizzly cousins are fewer in number. There are about 600 grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area, which spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Grizzly attacks on humans are rare in the Northern Rockies, where the vast majority of conflicts between people and bears involve damage to property -- from trash cans to livestock -- by the bruins.
Even so, the number of deadly grizzly encounters in the region so far in 2011 is higher than the average of one every two years, government figures show.
In July, a female grizzly in Yellowstone killed a hiker it perceived as a threat to its two cubs in the park's first fatal mauling since 1986.
Then last month, park officials said a grizzly had also killed another hiker whose body was found on one of the park's backcountry trails amid circumstances that remained under investigation.
Earlier this month in Montana, a grizzly attacked a hunter in what has been described as the state's first such incident in a decade to result in a death.
In that case, a Nevada man hunting black bears in the rugged mountains of northwest Montana was assaulted by a wounded grizzly on September 16. He was then inadvertently shot and killed by a friend targeting the attacking bear in an attempt to save him, officials said.
Grizzly bears are protected in the Lower 48 states under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to kill them unless they are threatening human life.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston)