Bear attacks hit record high in Alaska
by Karl Vick - Aug. 17, 2008 10:01 AM
The Washington Post
EAGLE RIVER, Alaska - Most times, in Alaska, the bear eats you.
But this summer, in a record year for maulings, Devon Rees managed a draw with the grizzly that leapt onto him as he sauntered home between a stream brimming with salmon and the busiest highway in the state.
"Bear comes flying out, gets its fight on," said Rees, 18, nursing his wounds on the couch of his grandmother's trailer perhaps 60 yards from the scene of the Aug. 4 battle. Bandages covered puncture wounds on the inside of both his thighs, and blood seeped through the gauze around one elbow. His jeans lay in shreds on the floor. His left eye was puffy from the swat of a massive paw.
"She was moving around like a dog will when it's fighting," said the 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound Rees, who had been at a friend's house until 2 a.m. watching a movie called "Never Back Down." "It was fist to claw."
In a typical year, Rees would stand out as the Anchorage area's one and only mauling victim. These days, he's just a face in a crowd of them, notable chiefly for defying expert advice that playing dead is the best way to survive after spooking a grizzly.
At least eight Alaskans have been battered by bears this year, with three maulings in five days in early August. And though no human fatalities have been recorded, the summer of the bear is testing Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife, an evolving attitude that differs from views in the Lower 48, where grizzlies run half as large.
"Most places in Alaska don't have a persistent problem with bear or moose, because if it's anywhere near the village, they shoot it, no questions asked," said Rick Sinnott, the Alaska Fish and Game Department biologist charged with reconciling the 350,000 humans who reside around Alaska's biggest city with the wildlife who live there, too. "It's the Last Frontier mentality: You don't tolerate any risk from wild animals."
But at least until this summer, Anchorage residents were more inclined to live and let live, many residents being from "outside" and intrigued by the sight of moose wandering through the city - as well as by the predators that stalk them.
"The joke used to be, Anchorage isn't too bad because it's only two hours from Alaska," said Sean Farley, a bear biologist with the Fish and Game Department. "The truth is, Alaska is right here. We've got bears. We got moose. We got wolves. You name it."
And this summer, a poor season for salmon has made the bears loiter longer at Anchorage streams and be less tolerant of interruption.
"If you don't get enough to eat, you get cranky," Farley said.
The first attack, on June 29, was one of the worst. Petra Davis, 15, was cycling in a marathon bike race at 1 a.m. on a trail beside a salmon stream in the city's Far North Bicentennial Park. In the darkness, with the wind whipping the cottonwood trees, she may have careened broadside into a mama grizzly. It chewed through her bike helmet, crushed her trachea and cut into her shoulder, torso, buttocks and thigh.
"She was on the ground, sitting up, bloody, her cellphone out," said Sinnott, who heard a recording of the call Davis managed to place to 911. "She was apologizing because she had a hard time talking."
She got out the word "bear." Another rider directed paramedics.
Suspicion centered on a grizzly sow with two cubs that had been the subject of a half-dozen reports in the area over a six-week period. One jogger said he discovered the sow running behind him and pulled himself forward as its jaws snapped shut an inch from his rear end.
The next attack came July 23, a few yards from the front door of the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, 100 miles south of Anchorage. Abi Sisk, 21, had just stepped onto a trail in the 11 p.m. twilight. She was bending to look at flowers when a grizzly lunged.
"She heard growling, and all of a sudden it was on her," said Dan Michels, the lodge manager. A guest heard "what he thought was laughing," from the parking lot and saw the bear with Sisk's head in its mouth.
The beast ran off after the man ran toward it, waving his arms and shouting. Sisk, a housekeeper, survived, partially scalped and with a broken jaw. Since May, a dozen bears have been shot on the Kenai Peninsula after threatening humans.
"The idea of bears is so predominant and so much bigger than the animals themselves," said Sherry Simpson, a University of Alaska professor and author of a book on bears and humans.
Farley, the biologist, has worked with grizzlies weighing 1,000 pounds, and he laughed aloud at Rees' vainglory. For appreciating the overpowering strength of Ursus arctos horribilis, Farley recommended a video shot five days before Rees's encounter, in the same town, by a woman who at first mistook for her baby's cries the sounds of a moose being killed by a grizzly.
"They got to do something about these bears," said Scott Simpson, a shipping executive, pausing at the scene of the Rees attack and voicing an opinion heard more and more often around Anchorage. "I've been all over the backwoods here and never seen it like this. The prevalence this summer is just staggering."
The sense of crisis took hold on Aug. 8, four days after Rees's encounter, when at 5 p.m. Clivia Feliz jogged onto Rover's Run, the city park trail where Davis was attacked. She had run 800 feet when the ears of her border collie, Sky, went straight up. Two grizzly cubs were 30 feet ahead on the trail, sniffing the ground.
"I'm thinking, Where's the sow?' " Feliz said from her Anchorage hospital bed. Not seeing one, she turned and ran back down the trail. The cubs gave chase. Feliz veered into the woods, figuring that "if I disappear from sight, maybe the cubs will just forget, like kids."
"But they were still coming."
Before she saw the mother bear, she heard it, first on the trail, then crashing through the brush. Feliz, 51, lay down behind some dead trees. The cubs "blew right by me," but the sow veered her way.
"I could see her nose go up. She scented me."
The bear was on her in seconds. There was no growling or clicking of teeth. It just stared at Feliz, huffing, then lunged at her head and "chomped right down" on the arm Feliz brought up reflexively.
For a few seconds, the bear simply held her captive, pushing Feliz's head and shoulders with its paws and mouth but not biting.
"She was just staring at me," said Feliz, a massage therapist. "And I was thinking I should protect my vital organs, because if she bites me in the stomach, you know, a lot of blood there. I drew my legs up. There was another huff. She bit down, but she bit down very deliberately this time.
"I could feel the ribs cracking. I knew she had bit into something, like an organ." Four ribs snapped, partially collapsing a lung.
Her screams of pain did not faze the bear, which held her down a few more moments, then left the way the cubs had gone. Feliz waited a few minutes before staggering back to the trail, her right arm hanging useless, with a crushed brachial artery, her left arm held against her bleeding torso. Sky reappeared, and when they reached a road Feliz flagged down a passing car.
"I know about bears. I've lived here 12 years," she said. "I'm not blaming anybody else. The bear was the bear and did what bears do."
That sensibility remains common across a state where fishermen routinely carry guns.
"I don't see it any different than New York in rush hour: You just have to pay attention. Our cars just have hair and teeth," said Don Smith, a telephone technician packing a .45 along with his fly rods as he prepared to float the Russian River, not far from the Kenai Princess Lodge.
Grizzlies routinely fish the bright teal waters alongside humans in what "feels like joint custody," said Sherry Simpson, the professor.
In Anchorage, trails placed beside streams are used both by bears and by people who often forget that a city can also be part of the wild. Analyzing the DNA from fur collected from thistles and wires, Farley found that 20 different bears passed near the stream where Davis and Feliz were mauled. Radio-collar tracking indicated that when salmon are running, bears are almost always within 100 yards of the stream and, therefore, the trail.
"There's the problem of enhancing salmon streams that run through cities," said Simpson: "Ring the dinner bell."
Outside reporter needs to do homework on bears
by Craig Medred - August 30th, 2008
Anchorage Daily News/OUTDOORS
Let's not mince words here: Washington Post staff writer Karl Vick is an ursine illiterate.
This is not name calling, of which I generally disapprove, but a simple statement of fact.
Here is what Vick "reported" in the Sunday, Aug. 17 edition of one of America's great newspapers:
"EAGLE RIVER, Alaska -- Most times, in Alaska, the bear eats you."
In how many ways is this wrong?
Number one: Most times, in Alaska, bears and humans coexist without any thought to that old cliche that cautions "sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you." Generally, people and bears meet, look at each other, mutually go "oh-oh,'' and then retreat, or flee, in opposite directions. This happens thousands, possibly tens of thousands of times per year in this state.
Despite a widespread, paranoid belief that grizzlies are big, brown, hairy people-eaters, they are not. A whole business has been built around people viewing huge, wild grizzly bears along the Katmai Coast. It would have been gone long ago if the threat of those bears eating people was significant.
Number two: When bears do attack -- a rare event in and of itself -- they almost never eat anyone. They apparently don't consider us very good prey. Bears bite people, and then they flee. Most bears are like heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, not Kiwi cannibals. Sometimes the injuries from bear bites are severe, but the flesh is usually still all there.
Some years back I was attacked by a grizzly bear. It had my ankle in its mouth when I shot it. It was biting, not eating.
When the attack happened, I was doing the most dangerous thing you can do in grizzly country -- sneaking quietly through the woods on the hunt for moose. I am confident that if I'd been making lots of noise I never would have gotten close enough to a whole family of grizzlies for things to get messy. They would have been long gone because it is the general policy of bears to avoid us.
They flee us, because they fear us. They fear us, because they have good reason.
Even the bears seem to understand that Vick got the first paragraph of his story 180 degrees wrong:
Most times, in Alaska the people eat the bear, or at least kill it.
ODDS FAVOR HUMANS
Not counting bears shot in defense of life and property or run down by cars in this state every year, humans kill 1,000 to 1,500 grizzly bears and about twice as many black bears. Most of the grizzlies become rugs or trophy mounts. Few people eat grizzly flesh; it's pretty rancid. But a good share of the 2,500 to 3,000 black bears reported taken by hunters each year are eaten as food.
Given these numbers, the odds are at least 100 times greater that people will get the bear than that the bear will get them.
Was Vick's claim to the contrary the end of the nonsense (or even if I thought he'd simply made a bad try at humor), I might have been able to restrain myself from calling him out on this story, but he goes on to hype the situation unjustifiably.
"But this summer,'' he writes, "in a record year for maulings....''
The story doesn't say. It just throws the observation out there. I frankly don't know if the claim is true or not. There is no clearinghouse for bear maulings in Alaska.
Tom Smith, a former U.S. Geological Survey biologist here and now a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, struggled to pull together a database on past maulings some years back. He admits he probably didn't get a perfect count on the number of Alaska attacks, but he got the best one out there.
It shows attacks averaging about 10 to 20 per year with peaks of 26 in the late 1990s. Have there been more than 26 people attacked by bears so far this year in Alaska?
If so, it's news to me.
This is, indeed, a record year for bear attacks in the Anchorage area, what with two unprecedented maulings at Far North Bicentennial Park within sight of downtown, and another at Eagle River. But Anchorage is not "Alaska," even if the half-million-acre Chugach State Park in the center of our broadly drawn "municipality" can provide a real taste of that fabled place.
I doubt, however, that Vick has any idea of the scope of the municipality or how much wilderness it includes back behind the strip-mall urban edge. Like so many Outside writers who buzz through town, he appears clueless to the scope and variety of the 49th state. I'm frankly tired of it. Some basic reporting might help some of these people, although even that doesn't appear to work for Vick.
"...The summer of the bear is testing Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife, an evolving attitude that differs from views in the Lower 48, where grizzlies run half as large,'' he writes.
I've lived here more than 30 years, and I have no idea what "Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife'' is, but that's not the problem.
The problem is the idea that Alaska is filled with monster bears twice the size of any elsewhere. The weight of grizzly bears in the American West is in the range of 400 to 600 pounds for males and 250 to 350 pounds for females. Interior Alaska grizzlies are about the same or slightly smaller, and the farther north you go in the state, the smaller, in general, the bears get.
The full-grown grizzly that killed Richard and Katherine Huffman on the Hula Hula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2005 weighed only 300 pounds. Coastal Alaska bears are different. They are so much larger than Interior bears that Alaska bears were long divided into two categories -- grizzlies and coastal brown bears. That was until taxonomists finally figured out that a coastal brown bear is just a really well fed grizzly. The bears are now referred to in many circles as brown/grizzly bears.
Along the Katmai coast, big boars will indeed get to 1,200 pounds, maybe even more. Locally, here on the inland coast, a 900-pounder would be considered a big boy. That is only about a third again as large as one of those Lower 48 males. But, more importantly, weight tells the least important part of the story.
Those huge coastal grizzlies are animals that get that way by stuffing themselves with salmon. It would be an overstatement to describe these bears as "fat and happy" for most of the summer, but at least they don't come running from miles away as Interior and Arctic bears sometimes will, to check you out as a potential meal.
Let's not forget, Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers engaging in his bear-fondling goofiness with the Katmai bears without a problem. He didn't get killed and, oddly enough, eaten until he ran into an unruly October bear -- a 28-year-old bear with broken teeth; a big, old bear needing calories to maintain its overgrown, 1,000-pound body size, a bear that scientists might describe as "food stressed."
Not to mention there's no telling what Treadwell might have done to provoke an attack. Bear biologists generally agree that if Treadwell had tried to get up close and personal with Denali National Park bears or Arctic refuge bears the way he did with Katmai bears, he wouldn't have lasted a summer.
BASIC FACTS WRONG
But I guess it could be as easy to overlook these differences among Alaska bears as it is to get other things simply confused. Vick again:
"...Don Smith, a telephone technician packing a .45 along with his fly rods as he prepared to float the Russian River, not far from the Kenai Princess Lodge.
"Grizzlies routinely fish the bright teal waters alongside humans in what 'feels like joint custody,' said Sherry Simpson, the professor."
Carcass-eating bears routinely "fish" alongside anglers on the Russian but not the Kenai. The Russian, however, has crystal clear water. The teal water is in the Kenai River which runs past the Princess Lodge. The Kenai also has several places for floaters to put in and take out boats. There are no put ins or take outs on the Russian, but I guess Smith could have been dragging a boat through the Russian River Campground to the river.
I've always kind of wanted to float the Russian myself just to see the reactions of the anglers who line both banks in places.
The only thing stopping me is that I'm chicken.
The Russian is only about half-a-cast wide, and I've always feared that if you went floating through the middle of the salmon an angler or two might try to snag you in the nose with a fly or bounce a big old chunk of lead off your head.
Maybe Vick should go do this float. In his case, having a sinker bounced off his noggin might be a good thing.