Denali bear hunt ongoing


A young Alaska grizzly bar/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

As the hunt continues for a grizzly bear that last week bit a hiker in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, National Park Service officials are discovering a dichotomy familiar to most hunters:

Animals are everywhere until you go looking to shoot one.

Five days have now passed since a sub-adult grizzly scratched and then bit 28-year-old Fangyuan Zhou along the Salvage Alpine Trail near the entrance to the 6-million-acre wilderness, and rangers have yet to find the bear.

With the hunt continuing, the Denali Park Road and all hiking trails between Mile 13 -17 remain closed to private vehicles, bicycles, and foot traffic The Savage River Campground is still open, but camping is only allowed in hard-sided recreation vehicles.

What park officials thought would be an easy hunt for a problem bear which had been harassing people for almost two weeks before finally getting a taste of human flesh is turning out to be harder than anticipated.

“What a scramble,” wildlife biologist Pat Owen said Tuesday. She had a crew of six out looking for the bear, but finding little sign of it.

The Wednesday plan, she said, was “to play visitor,” and hike the Savage-area trails hoping that if they couldn’t find the bear, the bear would find them.

Before chasing Zhou and two friends, the bear had chased others. In one incident, it managed to get a backpack containing food that was dropped by a hiker. Such easy pickings, by bear standards, encourage bears to try for more.

The Savage area was closed to hiking after the backpack incident, and the bear was hazed by park employees. They thought they’d succeeded in teaching it people were trouble and should be avoided, but obviously the lesson didn’t work.

On Friday, the bear harassed a group of people who chased it off before encountering Zhou, an Anchorage resident, and friends. They saw the bear and dropped to the ground to play dead, according to a park ranger.

This is never a good move unless the bear is so close it is about to grab you. This bear was not that close, but after the woman from Alaska’s largest city hit the tundra along with her friends the bear came closer to investigate the odd human behavior.

The curious animal clawed at Zhou and then bit her. When her friends reacted by jumping up and throwing stones, the bear retreated.

Why the group decided to ply dead is unclear. Park spokeswoman Miriam Valentine said the group had bear repellant, a pepper-spray that can be used to drive bears away. Why the spray went unused is unknown. has been unable to reach Zhou.

Wildlife biologists say using the spray is far preferable to playing dead. It has been found to be highly effective in repelling bears.

“Red pepper spray stopped bears’ undesirable behavior 92 percent of the time when used on brown (grizzly) bears (in Alaska), 90 percent for black bears, and 100 percent for polar bears,” wildlife biologist Tom Smith reported in a 2006 study. “Of all persons carrying sprays, 98 percent were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters.”

A former federal wildlife biologist in Alaska, Smith is now a professor of Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University in Utah.

His 2006 study on the “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska” did concede the spray’s limitations.

“Wind can influence bear spray’s accuracy and distance,” it said. “Of the 72 incidents we studied, four (6 percent) involved persons who had to leave the area to alleviate burning eyes and coughing. No one reported being incapacitated by spray, although one user said he had to move or he would have been overwhelmed.”

It is possible Zhou and friends were afraid to gas the animal for fear wind would simply blow the spray back on them. Owen said she had not talked to Zhou, who left the park shortly after the attack, to find out exactly what happened.

Owen has been devoting her efforts to trying to find the bear and eliminate it per park service policy. It is the agency view that grizzly bears that lose their fear of humans are inherently dangerous. If the bear isn’t found soon, Owen said, air support might have to be called in.

The bear has disrupted activities in the Savage area at the height of the park’s popular summer season. But the bear problem there is not unique for Alaska. So far this year there have been reported bear attacks on people in the Pandhandle, off the Denali Highway, and on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Kenai attack came Sunday when a woman hiking near Skilak Lake surprised a bear at close range. She retreated. It followed. She fell down. The bear pounced on her, bit her leg and then took off. Refuge officials told the Peninsula Clarion they thought it was a simple defensive action on the part of the bear, and they had no plans to go looking for the animal.

They did warn people it is the time of year when they can expect to encounter bears along streams almost anywhere on the Kenai. The salmon are running and the bears, like people, converge to catch them.

Wildlife biologists say it makes sense for anyone hiking or otherwise recreating in the Alaska backcountry to learn how to use bear spray and then carry it. An 8.1-ounce can weighs only 11 ounces, a fraction of the weight of any  firearm. And it requires far less skill to use than a firearm.

But the spray is not perfect. It has limitations as Smith noted.

“Because some persons had to spray bears multiple times to drive bears off in 24 percent (17 of 72) of instances we studied, spray conservation, and total canister volume, may be concerns,” he wrote.

Super-size bear spray canisters are now available to those concerned about running out of gas. Smith’s other concern was with the shelf life of bear spray.

“We suggest discarding bear spray when contents fall below 90 percent of the original amount (as determined by weighing), or when the canister is past its expiration date, generally 3 to 4 years from date of purchase,” he said.

A good use for expired bear spray is to use it as a training tool to teach people how to use the weapon. Just be careful of where you leave the residue. The pepper which repels bears when sprayed in their face has been shown to attract them if used to season the forest or tundra.


4 replies »

  1. Exactly. It’s an incomplete dataset. What if for every one reported (and thereafter sensationalized) “dog returns to owner with angry bear who mauls dog owner” newspaper article, there are 10 (or 50 or 100) unreported (and therefore never discussed in a public forum) cases where dogs and their noses prevented human/bear encounters from ever happening in the first place?

    It would be interesting to hear the details of the woman on the lower Kenai River trail last weekend who was hiking with dogs. Did the dogs create a bad situation or did they prevent an inevitable situation from turning out worse? One more anecdote to add to the dataset at least.

  2. somebody should, Pete, because i can’t agree more with your observations. there’s no doubt in my mind, for instance, that the number of people who run from a bear and AREN’T mauled is vastly under reported because i’ve talked to so many who have run. i don’t advise it. i don’t think it’s a good idea. but if we had a big sample size we might really find out it makes no difference. Herrero’s dog conclusions also give me pause. how many thousands of encounters are there we simply don’t know about? would the dog data shake out differently with a larger sample size? be interesting to know. that said, i do think the pepper spray data is sound because if we had a lot of people getting mauled AFTER spraying bears, we’d certainly hear about it.

  3. If you read the Methods section of the Smith (2006) study, their data came from newspaper accounts and anecdotes. Really? In my experience, newspaper articles are written when people get mauled not when they have successful bear encounters. Virtually all of the encounters in the study were successful. Where are all these articles about successful bear encounters that the study’s authors rely on? Like other Alaskans, I have multiple bear encounters every year but nobody’s writing stories about it because it’s not news.

    Craig, you should set up a bear encounter database as a part of your site. People could enter the pertinent info about their experience and you could collect some real data about when things go right in bear country. It’s not as exciting as mauling tales, but it might be helpful to hear what people are doing to avoid unsuccessful bear encounters.

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