Lost and Found

Bear was having a good day. He was finishing a late-afternoon jaunt along the Nordic ski trails in Hyalite Canyon on Friday, March 22 with Mandy Woodmansee and her boyfriend Grant Ellison. The eight-year-old black lab / pit-bull’s normal demeanor would be described as “super-mellow,” but a snow-covered hiking trail will transform him into an exuberant powder-hound. 

As Bear approached the bridge near the Langohr campground that spans Hyalite Creek, his body language changed dramatically. A group of eight college-age kids—a stack of clay pigeons and a case of Hamm’s beer at their feet—were standing on the bridge roughly 50 yards from the Hyalite Canyon Road, shooting handguns over the creek as skiers passed, violating multiple firearms-safety tenets.

Terrified of loud noises, Bear put his tail between his legs and slinked over the bridge to Grant’s pickup truck, parked in a turnout on Hyalite Canyon Road. As Mandy and Grant removed their skis, the yahoos on the bridge let loose a volley of gunfire that lasted a full 30 seconds. Instantly, Bear bolted across the road and sprinted down the trail on the east side of the road.

Grant and Mandy clicked back into their skis and took off in hot pursuit, screaming “Bear!” at the top of their lungs, cognizant that their shouts might be interpreted to mean something else entirely. Reports from other skiers were alarming. “Bear was sighted a mile up the trail within minutes of taking off from the truck,” Mandy Woodmansee recalls. “There were lots of dog tracks, so it was impossible to tell which prints were Bear’s.” After hours of frantic searching, Grant returned to his truck while Mandy hitched a ride six miles to the mouth of Hyalite in search of a clear cell signal so she could make a gut-wrenching phone call.

Although Mandy helped select Bear at Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in 2007, the dog actually belonged to her brother, Brian Woodmansee. Hearing Mandy’s news, Brian left work immediately, sped up the canyon, and joined the search until well after dark.

Advised that lost dogs often return to the point of last contact with their human companions, they decided to leave Grant’s pickup (equipped with a topper) parked in the turnout overnight, the tailgate open, with food and blankets in the truck bed. Unable to sleep, wracked with guilt, and haunted by images of what Bear might encounter during the frigid night, Mandy and Grant drove up at midnight, again at 4am, then returned at sunrise on Saturday morning.

Brian’s wife Lindsay was frustrated by her inability to participate in the trail search for the beloved family dog. Lindsay had given birth to daughter Lucy just eight days prior and was also caring for four-year-old Bradley—Bear’s near-constant companion. Lindsay turned despair into action and spearheaded a communication campaign that serves as a textbook example of how to marshal the resources of a community to locate a lost pet.

Lindsay printed posters featuring a photo of Bear and posted them at retail stores including Bob Ward’s and PetSmart. As others searched on skis, Lindsay patrolled the canyon road in her vehicle day after day. She tacked posters to trailhead kiosks, slipped them beneath vehicles’ windshield wipers, and handed them to every person she encountered. Bradley brought along a toy train whistle and blew it out the car window. Bear hated the whistle and would lick Bradley’s face to get him to stop blowing it, so Bradley believed the sound would let Bear know he was nearby.

Lindsay and Mandy also used social media to spread the word about the missing dog. They created a Facebook page called “Bring Bear Home,” posted messages on local radio and television station web pages, the Bozeman Lost Pet Facebook page, the Bozeman Police Department site, the Friends of Hyalite FB page, and the 4,500-member MSU Confessions FB page, among others. Soon, complete strangers started contacting Lindsay and Brian to get updates and to ask where they should search.

The Woodmansees knew that their window of opportunity was closing rapidly; the gate at the mouth of Hyalite Canyon was scheduled to be locked on April 1, thereby eliminating vehicle access to the Canyon. Going into “full court press” mode, the Woodmansees alerted Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in case Bear was turned in as a stray. They placed a classified ad in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and posted on Craigslist. They contacted the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department (whose deputies graciously handed out flyers during a search-and-rescue event at Palisade Falls), and even contacted a search dog group to see if their dogs were trained to find missing dogs. 

The “ground offensive” that the Wodmansees employed was aggressive and creative. Mandy Woodmansee and Grant Ellison skied the entire 12-mile length of the trail from Langohr to the Bozeman Creek trailhead. Lindsay taped a huge poster to the kiosk at the mouth of the canyon. She also placed articles of family clothing near the pickup truck and even had Bradley urinate in the area, hoping that Bear would be drawn to the familiar scents. Each night, before going to bed, Bradley placed a dog bone outside their door, believing it might somehow lure his playmate back home.

The first confirmed “bear sighting” came courtesy of the MSU Confessions page. A student posted that he had seen a dog resembling Bear crossing from side-to-side along the Hyalite Canyon Road near the Langohr Campground on Sunday night. Bear was still alive.

Then, on Tuesday evening at 8pm, two young men were driving down Hyalite Canyon Road after a day of backcountry skiing when they spotted what appeared to be a small black bear beside the road. They soon realized that it was the missing dog they had seen depicted on a trailhead poster. Bear was acting fearful and skittish, so they opted to use their dog as an intermediary. They let their dog out of the car and patiently waited as the two canines sniffed one another. After a few minutes, they asked their dog to load up into the car and Bear followed him right into the vehicle.

Brian had just returned from the canyon and was sitting down to dinner when the phone rang and the caller reported, “We have Bear.” After a hastily arranged hand-off, Bear walked into the Woodmansee home and strode purposefully to his dog bowl. A happy family dogpile ensued—until they noticed the stench; Bear had obviously rolled in something rancid. The night ended with everyone, including Bear, freshly bathed, fed, and bedded down. After four nerve-wracking days, the family unit was complete once again.