A young Denali Park grizzly bear that decided people are to play with has been handed a death sentence.
Officials at the 6-million-acre wilderness park in the heart of the 49th state announced Saturday the bear will be executed at the first safe opportunity.
The bear has been a problem for about two weeks. Park wildlife officials thought they’d cured it of its bad habit of approaching people by bouncing some bean bags off it. Getting hit with a bean-bag round has been compared to being kicked by a horse.
Law enforcement officers are warned that a bean-bag shot to the head can crack someone’s skull or break their neck, and that a shot to the chest can cracks ribs and push them into the heart. Bean bags, because of their kick, have been used in Alaska to try to train bears that people mean painful trouble.
For five days after this bear was punished for its bad behavior near the Savage River trailhead along the Denali Park Road, all looked to be going well, but then came a Friday incident not entirely of the bear’s making.
About 7 p.m. that evening, according to park reports, the bear approached 28-year-old Fangyuan Zhou and two friends hiking on the Savage Alpine Trail. The trio immediately dropped to the ground and played dead. This behavior is not recommended.
Though it is considered best practice to drop to the ground and lock your fingers behind your neck if a bear makes contact or if it is about to make contact, the accepted practice when meeting a bear at a distance is to hold your ground. Bears, especially young bears, are innately curious.
This one – what a park press release described as a “small, subadult” – approached the hikers on the ground, then scratched and bit Zhou. The bear retreated when Zhou’s hiking companions got up and started throwing rocks at the animal.
Another group of about 10 people had used a similar technique to discourage the bear a short time before the Zhou encounter.
“They were able to scare it off by grouping together, shouting, and waving their arms,” a press release said. “This action is exactly what the park encourages hikers to do when they have a close encounter with a bear.”
After Zhou was bitten and the bear driven off, the animal did approach her group again. This time the three hikers decided it was not a good idea to play dead.
“When it returned several minutes later, a group member threw rocks at the bear, and it ran off,” the press release said. It also noted “park guidelines do not recommend playing dead prior to contact.”
Luckily, Zhou was not seriously injured. Park Service employees performed first aid, and she said she would get herself to a hospital in Anchorage. Alaska’s largest city is about 265 miles south of the park via the George Parks Highway.
Though the bear does not appear totally to blame in this incident, its behavior does worry park managers. It had previously charged visitors on Savage area trails, and on June 22 that behavior was rewarded when it managed to get a hiker’s day pack that contained food.
Once bears make the connection that people are easy animals from which to obtain food, it is hard to dispel them of that notion. Park officials said they tried, but now have no choice but to kill the bear before someone gets hurt.
“The erratic behavior of the bear over the past two weeks: approaching and charging several groups of hikers; biting and scratching a hiker; obtaining food from a hiker; and its general interest in people represents an unacceptable risk to safety in the highly visited front country of the park. Park staff will locate and kill the bear as soon as safely possible,” the official statement said.
Until that is complete, official have closed the road and all hiking trails between Mile 13 and Mile 17 to private vehicles, bicycles, and foot traffic. Savage River Campground, meanwhile, is limited to hard-sided RVs. Park visitors can call 907-683-9532 from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily to check on the road status.