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Author, survivor of 2 griz attacks dies

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) -- Jim Cole -- photographer, author, musician, bear advocate and victim of two grizzly bear maulings -- died last week of natural causes, Gallatin County Deputy Coroner Mike Chesnut confirmed Thursday.

Cole was 60 years old.

Concerned friends, unable to reach Cole for several days, alerted the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office on Monday, Chesnut said. Deputies found Cole's body in his home south of Bozeman. Chesnut determined Cole died on July 22.

"What can you say? It was too early," Jim Halfpenny, a longtime friend of Cole's and president of A Naturalist's World in Gardiner, said Thursday. "It is a loss to the wildlife community. And to bears."

At times controversial but always passionate in his work on behalf of wild bears, Cole had just published his third book, "Blindsided: Surviving a Grizzly Attack and Still Loving the Great Bear" (St. Martin's Press; $25.99). The book includes details of his encounter with a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park in May 2007.

On that spring day, he was hiking alone, off trail, about two or three miles from the road in prime grizzly habitat when he accidentally stepped on a female grizzly that had a cub nearby, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported at the time.

"I apparently walked right on her without knowing it," he wrote in "Blindsided." 'And she was on me -- bing! -- she was on me real quick. She drove me into the ground."

He couldn't reach his bear spray, which was on his belt. The sow raked his face with her claws, tearing out his left eye, and left him badly scarred. He underwent reconstructive surgery, but from that time on he wore what became his signature eye patch.

Cole did a reading and book signing at The Country Bookshelf in downtown Bozeman on July 14. Mary Jane DiSanti, the bookstore's owner, said Cole lived in Bozeman for 12 years and was a frequent customer.

"We had a really, really good crowd for his reading and people asked him questions and he sang some of his songs and talked about how much more education he wanted to do," she said. "He was really trying to get into schools and anywhere he could talk about grizzly bears and other wild animals. He was just a man with a mission. He was so passionate about it all.

"He said, 'Yes, I lost an eye, I was disfigured and it took a lot of recovery. But it was not the bear's fault. I startled her. It's important to know that they are not inherently aggressive. They are not mean, vicious animals. They want to get out of your way as much as you want to get out of theirs,'" DiSanti recalled.

DiSanti also said Cole once told her that his father had died of a massive heart attack at age 39.

"He said that when his father died at that age, I think Jim was selling real estate at that time, he just decided that he was going to take what money he had saved and live his dream, go out West and do photography and study bears," DiSanti said.

Halfpenny said he met Cole in 1988 in Boulder, Colo.

"Jim started working for me on the Human-Mountain Lion Interaction Project," Halfpenny said. "We were looking at the growing number of cougars on the front range of Colorado and the increasing number of encounters between cougars and people. He was a volunteer who helped us on tracking surveys."

The two became friends.

"I came up here earlier than he did and then he came up this way and became more and more interested in bears," Halfpenny said. "Jim was driven about wildlife, and greatly interested in their perpetuation. And he carried that to whatever species he played with at the time.

"His interest was the animals and in sharing the animals through his music, his writing and his educational efforts," he said.

Cole's first two books, "Lives of Grizzlies: Alaska," and "Lives of Grizzlies: Montana and Wyoming," detailed his "years spent tramping into the wilderness of Alaska, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in search of grizzlies," according to the Country Bookshelf's website.

The first time Cole was attacked by a grizzly bear was in 1993, when he surprised a young bear in Glacier National Park. That bear tore a hole in Cole's scalp and broke his wrist before a friend used pepper spray.

Yet despite the two violent encounters with grizzlies, Cole remained dedicated to helping preserve the animals and their habitat.

"My mission is to educate people about bears so they understand the true nature of bears," Cole once said. "Attacks are defensive and they're not out there stalking us. They're peace-loving animals and they're just the most fascinating, interesting animals I've ever known."

In pursuit of photographs and a better understanding of grizzlies, Cole hiked thousands of miles in the backcountry. "I want to document natural grizzly behavior, not bears reacting to humans," Cole wrote in his first book. "All the same, as careful as I try to be, I certainly have made my share of mistakes."

In 2004, Cole was ticketed by Yellowstone rangers who accused him of willfully getting too close, within 100 yards, of a grizzly female and two cubs. He denied the charge and was acquitted by a non-jury trial a year later.

Yellowstone bear biologist Kerry Gunther said he met Cole a few times at "roadside bear jams" in the park and in court.

"He loved bears, he was passionate about bears and I think he sincerely and genuinely tried to get a good message out about bears," Gunther said Thursday. "Some of his methods for photography many people would disagree with. He probably pushed the envelope a little bit in trying to get close to bears for photos. But he was always trying to do good for bears."

Gunther said after Cole's trial, the park's law was changed "to be more clear."

"Under the previous law, you could not knowingly approach within 100 yards of a bear," he said. "After losing that case, because the government couldn't prove he approached the bear, his method was that he would crouch down and let the bears forage past him, the law was changed to say you cannot knowingly approach or remain within 100 yards of a bear."

Halfpenny said he and Cole discussed that case and Cole's field methods.

"We didn't always agree on things, but it's safe to say his philosophy wasn't the same as a lot of other folks," Halfpenny said. "He would go out and do things. As a photographer he was out there in the wild. And Jim was alive when he was out there among the animals.

"He was willing to be odd, if you will, to carry on and do his stuff. And you need extreme advocates. If everyone was just a middle-of-the-road advocate, things wouldn't happen. You need a few at the extreme to push it and keep it going," he said.

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