A grizzly bear sow with cubs bit a hiker in Denali National Park and Preserve on Thursday, according to the National Park Service, but she doesn’t appear to be as dangerous as a second bear now causing problems.
The serious problem bear is a sub-adult grizzly of unknown gender that has been hanging out near the Savage River and threatening people. That bear started the week charging cars and chasing people.
On Wednesday, it approached and then charged several hikers on the Savage Alpine Trail, the park service’s Kathleen Kelly emailed; “One hiker threw a daypack, hoping to distract the bear, and the bear immediately broke into the pack, played with it and consumed at least two candy bars and bottles of soda pop.”
Once bears come to associate people with food, they tend to start approaching people on a regular basis in search of more easy food. So the park closed Savage Alpine Trail, the Savage River Loop Trail and both Savage River parking areas so park wildlife technicians could try what Kelly called “aversive conditioning techniques to teach a bear in the area to avoid approaching humans.”
Basically, this entails bouncing rubber bullets off the bear, spraying it with pepper spray or smacking it with a gun-driven bean bag so that it comes to understand humans are trouble – not vending machines.
The technique sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, the bear usually ends up getting shot.
Until park officials are comfortable with the situation, Kelly said, much of the Savage River area will remain closed.
“The hope is the bear is impressionable enough to become wary,” she said. “According to Dave Schirokauer, resources and science team leader for Denali National Park, this situation is very serious because the bear was rewarded and may have learned to associate humans with food.”
Park officials are reminding park visitors that Denali bears are wild and potentially dangerous. Park visitors need to study up on how to deal with bears. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a brochure on “The Essentials for Traveling in Alaska’s Bear Country” available online in nine languages.
Tip number one is simple: Keep your eyes open for wildlife and if you see a bear or bears avoid them.
Tip two, should you stumble into a close encounter, is to avoid running unless protective shelter – say maybe a motor vehicle – is very close nearby. Bears are fast; they can hit speeds of 30 mph. Most bears will retreat if you stand your ground.
Tip three, if tip two fails and the bear is a grizzly, is to curl up on the ground and interlock your fingers behind your neck.
Level-headed hiker avoided serious injury
Park officials are praising the behavior of Phil Buchanan, an Aramark-Doyon bus driver in the park, who was attacked Thursday while hiking through brush to the north of the Park Road near Mile 8. It was early afternoon when he heard a cub “shriek,” Kelly reported.
Almost instantly, the sow charged. Buchanan followed tip two and stood his ground, but the sow knocked him down. He was bitten in the left calf and suffered an injury below the rib cage.
Once on the ground, he followed proper protocol for the situation, curling up into a fetal position and playing dead.
“He remained in that position for five minutes once the attack was over,” Kelly said. “According to Schirokauer, this (attack) is typical defensive behavior by the sow. She was likely surprised and felt threatened, and then protected her cubs.
“The fact that she moved on almost immediately when Buchanan posed no threat to her or her cubs, and she showed no interest in his pack, despite his having food with him, indicates this bear poses no more threat to visitors than any other female grizzly bear with cubs in the park.”
After the attack, Buchanan hiked about two hours back to the road and flagged down a driver to ask for help. He was taken to the Denali Canyon Clinic for treatment before being transferred to a hospital in Fairbanks.
Denali Park is home to both black and grizzly bears and visitors are advised to learn how to tell the two species apart. Playing dead if attacked by a grizzly, especially a sow with cubs, is a recommended survival technique, but one should never play dead with an Alaska black bear.
Black bears attacks are very rare, but the animals have been known to occasionally view humans as “prey.” Three years ago a cabin owner was killed and partially eaten by a black bear to the north of the park in the Alaska Interior. If attacked by a black bear, fight back aggressively and with anything you can use as a weapon – a rock, a stick, your fists.
It is also a good idea to consider carrying bear spray when hiking almost anywhere in Alaska. The entire state, including many of the parks in the city of Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city – are bear habitat.