The Last Wild Man
BART SCHLEYER WASTHE KIND OF GUY you rarely hear about anymore, a John Henry of a man, one wholoved wild...
BART SCHLEYER WASTHE KIND OF GUY you rarely hear about anymore, a John Henry of a man, one wholoved wild places, dangerous carnivores, hunting, science and laughter so muchhe crafted an amazing life around them.
Schleyer was awildlife researcher, an artist, a writer, a philosopher and a consummatehunter. He was killed and eaten by a grizzly while bowhunting moose alone inthe Yukon in September 2004. Virtually penniless at the time of his death, hewas described by friends and colleagues around the world as the happiest manthey’d ever known.
He spent much ofhis 49 years roaming the wilds of Wyoming, Africa, Montana, Alaska, Asia and,finally, the Yukon. He trapped grizzlies and tigers for a living, putting radiocollars on them so they might be studied and preserved. In his spare timeSchleyer hunted with a homemade longbow he based on a 4,700-year-old design andcrafted from Russian ash and tiger sinew.
“Bart was thelast wild man, the most unique individual I’ve ever known,” says KathyQuigley, a veterinarian for the Wildlife Conservation Society who worked withhim in the Russian Far East. “He wasn’t interested in career or money; hefollowed his heart and lived for adventure until the day he died.” SCHLEYER WAS BORN IN CHEYENNE, WYO., IN 1954. His physician father, Otis, tookhim hunting for the first time when he was 4, tying him into the back seat ofhis jeep as they chased antelope. Otis took his son on safari in Mozambiquewhen he was 10. On the first day, Bart shot at an impala; he missed and startedcrying.
“I told himto stop right away, that hunting isn’t about bagging something,” Otis says.”It’s about enjoying the land, the animals and the people. Bart neverforgot that. The last time I spoke to him, he’d just returned from afourteen-day solo stone sheep hunt. He told me he didn’t get his ram, but hesure enjoyed himself.”
On subsequenttrips to Africa at 13 and again at 17, Schleyer shot impala, gazelles, sables,ibex, wildebeests, warthogs and lions. But when he returned to Wyoming, he wasjust as excited to be chasing rabbits with his slingshot.
“With Bart,the act of hunting was more important than the location or the game,” hissister, Claudia Downey, says. “He loved it more than anyone I’ve everknown.”
The year afterSchleyer’s return from his last safari, Jim Downey, Claudia’s husband,introduced him to bowhunting. Schleyer never hunted with a rifle again.
Schleyer wantedto be a taxidermist when he was young, and then an artist. He studied wildlifeillustrations in magazines like OUTDOOR LIFE and took art classes for two yearsbefore transferring to Montana State University, where he earned a master’sdegree in wildlife biology in 1979.
His thesis was ongrizzly bear activity patterns in Yellowstone National Park. Working for thefamed Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team at MSU, Schleyer learned thelive-trapping skills that would one day be the mainstay of his professionallife. He became a master at luring bears into culvert traps, fitting them withradio collars and then tracking them with telemetry devices.
Mark Haroldson,now a supervisor with the team, was Schleyer’s research partner on a studydesigned to figure out what bears did when disturbed by hikers.
“Bart’s jobwas to get close enough to jump the bears out of their beds,” Haroldsonsays. “He got chased up quite a few trees over the years. A lot of peoplethought what he did was insane, but he loved his job and worked hard atit.”
He also workedhard at staying in shape. Haroldson remembers Schleyer returning to hiswilderness camps after long, punishing days afield and performing hundreds ofpush-ups, sit-ups and squats with logs on his shoulders.
A Woman’s Daymagazine reporter who came to Yellowstone to do a story on bear research endedup focusing her piece on Schleyer. She titled it “The Bronze and BeautifulHeartthrob of Cooke City, Montana.” His coworkers jokingly called him”Body Beautiful Bart.”
Keith Aune, nowthe research director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, recruited Schleyerin 1985 for a grizzly study on the Rocky Mountain front northwest of Choteaucountry too steep and unforgiving to work with culvert traps and helicopters.Instead, they used horses and backpacks to bring Aldrich leg-hold snares intothe Bob Marshall Wilderness. They ran traplines for grizzlies in some of thenastiest terrain in the state. Schleyer routinely endured trips of 30 to 40days in the bush, packing 80 pounds of snares and raw meat on his back with abig grin on his face.
He was an expertat building sets that forced bears to step in his snares and then dartinggrizzlies at close quarters. While they were drugged, he treated the bears likehis children, making sure they were safe. Once a bear was collared, he’d followit on foot, sleeping when it slept, eating when it ate, moving when itmoved.
“That wasBart’s thing, following right behind them,” Aune recalls. “His job,basically, was to trap bears and then stalk them. He’d trap and follow bearsfor six solid weeks toward the end of summer, then come out of the wilderness,take a shower, get his gear together and go right back in with Paul to hunt forreal.”
Paul Schafer, abowyer from Kalispell and another MSU grad, was widely regarded as the greatestbowhunter of his time, and was like an older brother to Schleyer. He introducedhim to traditional archery and built Schleyer a recurve that he used to huntelk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep.
Working withbears, hunting with Schafer and dating the occasional beautiful woman were thefocuses of Schleyer’s life in the 1980s. He had plenty of opportunities to moveup the career ladder, get his Ph.D., run research teams, make more money,settle down and have a family. None of it interested him. Schleyer wanted to bein the wild.
By the end of the’80s, however, Schleyer found that Montana could no longer sate his appetitefor adventure. In 1991, he moved to Wasilla, north of Anchorage, where heworked in Dan Foster’s taxidermy shop.
“It didn’tmatter if he was doing the grungiest job, he was cheerful,” Foster says.”In the field, he was a phenomenal outdoorsman, the guy everyone wanted tohunt with.”
Schleyer met DaleRoutt in Foster’s shop that first year in Alaska. Routt was a lifelong Alaskanwith broad experience hunting and surviving in the bush. But he’d never seenanyone like the Bronze and Beautiful Heartthrob.
“I’ll goanother lifetime before meeting someone like Bart again,” Routt says.”Physically he was a Neanderthal. Intellectually he was brilliant.Spiritually he loved being out in the wildest parts of Alaska. Some of mygreatest days were in the field with him.”
Schleyer was agifted moose caller, Routt says–so good that he once called in a grizzly bearwhile they were hunting. Routt had to climb a tree to escape the charge.
In 1992, Schleyerdrew a permit to hunt brown bears on Kodiak Island. Two hunting buddies fromMontana State–Brad Adams, a respected guide on the Alaska peninsula, and JeffBooth, a biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife–decided to accompany him. PaulSchafer came up from Montana to film, to back Schleyer with a 12-gauge and tohunt blacktails.
Mid-afternoon onthe fifth day, the four men were on a ridge miles from camp when they spotted ahuge brown bear moving to bed. When they got to 125 yards, Booth and Adamsdecided to hang back and watch the final stalk.
Schleyer andSchafer made it into a gully 50 yards away when the bear heard something, gotup and came straight at them. That’s when Adams realized that Schafer was stillfilming; his shotgun was on his back.
“I wasthinking this could get bad real quick,” Adams recalls. “But Bartwaited for the bear to step forward at twenty yards and expose its ribs,slightly quartering to him. Then he got up and drew. The bear saw Bart just ashe released, putting the arrow right behind its shoulder. Luckily, instead ofattacking, the bear ran off forty yards, looked back, and then dove into thealders and died. Only Paul and Bart could have gotten away with something likethat.”
Tragically, itwas their last time afield. The following winter Paul Schafer died whileextreme skiing at Big Mountain in Whitefish, Mont., and Schleyer was recruitedinto the next phase of his life. Maurice Hornocker, a renowned wildliferesearcher at the University of Idaho, was launching a study of Siberiantigers, and he needed an expert to trap and collar the big cats safely.Schleyer was his choice.
For the next nineyears, when he wasn’t hunting, Schleyer lived in the coastal rain forest of theSikhote Alin Biosphere Reserve near the town of Terney, in the Russian FarEast.
“I don’t likeusing the word “trapper’ to describe Bart because his skills went farbeyond being able to get an animal to step in a trap,” says John Goodrich,the project’s field coordinator. “Bart excelled in dealing with them oncethey were caught. He had an innate sense about animals and their behavior andhad tremendous compassion for them.”
During his yearsin the Russian Far East, Schleyer met a Russian woman named Tatiana who workedon the project. They began seeing each other and had a son, Artyom.
In 1995, hereturned to Alaska to go on a memorial hunt for Paul Schafer in the BrooksRange with Brad Adams and Jeff Booth. On the second to last day of the hunt,Schleyer spotted a giant Dall sheep and crawled on his back for hours across a50-degree slope to get in range. He shot the 40-inch-plus ram late in the dayat less than 30 yards.
He spent thenight on the mountain with his ram. While hiking out the next day, Booth flewover in his Super Cub, heading home. It was the last time Schleyer would seehis friend. About an hour later, Booth crashed his plane and died.
As Schleyerapproached the new millennium, his friends say he was dealing with thepressures that his lifestyle put on those closest to him, especially hisgirlfriend and son.
“Thetrade-offs were very difficult for him, particularly between hunting and hisfamily and working on the tiger project,” John Goodrich says.
As had happenedto him in Montana nearly a decade before, Schleyer began to feel penned in byencroaching civilization in Alaska. In 2002 he moved to Whitehorse in the Yukonto fulfill his dream of hunting stone sheep. “In my opinion, the Yukon wasone of the last places big enough and wild enough to hold him,” Keith Aunesays.
DEATH IN THEWILD
Late summer of2004 found Schleyer back in the Yukon. He hunted stone sheep unsuccessfully butwas in high spirits when he called his father, girlfriend and son to tell themhe was going back into the bush to hunt for a moose. He hired a pilot to takehim into upper Reid Lake on September 14. His plan was to stay two weeks.
But when thepilot returned on the 28th, Schleyer was nowhere to be found. The RoyalCanadian Mounted Police were summoned. Evidence found at his camp indicatedhe’d eaten only one meal and had never built a fire. The Mounties discoveredhis raft a half mile from camp before bad weather forced them to end thesearch.
Dibs Williams,Schleyer’s best friend in Whitehorse, flew into upper Reid Lake once theweather quit. He found Bart’s bow leaning against a tree not far from the raft.He also found his balaclava with blood and hair in it.
The Mountiesreturned and found a human skull later identified as Schleyer’s. The Mountiesalso found bear and wolf scat that proved to contain human remains.
Schleyer’sfriends greeted his death with disbelief and profound grief. “To most ofus, Bart was invincible, one of those guys who’d live forever,” says Aune.”And the idea of a bear getting to him? It was impossible. Couldn’t havehappened. We thought he’d have punched the bear in the nose and knocked himout.”
Schleyer’s sisterand father were shocked by the outpouring of emotion they received in hundredsof cards and e-mails from all over the world.
“We knew Bartwas good at what he did, but we had no idea how well-respected and loved hewas,” says Claudia Downey. “We got so many messages that said what agreat loss it was to wildlife conservation and to them personally. When Bartdied, he didn’t have much. But I realized after reading all those cards ande-mails that my brother’s wealth had not been in money or material things. Hiswealth was in his life, his experiences and his friendships.”
This past summer,Schleyer’s remains were spread from a plane over his beloved Brooks Range inAlaska. The last wild man had come home.