Just when you thought it was safe to go into the park – Denali National Park that is – the Savage River troublemaker could be back.
Or at least some grizzly bear is back in the Savage area and that was enough for the National Park Service to back off on plans for today’s reopening of the Mountain Vista and Savage River Loop trails.
It was just to the east of the Savage Loop on the Savage Alpine Trail that the people-chasing, sub-adult grizzly took a bite out of 28-year-old Fangyuan Zhou from Anchorage on July 1. The bear chased after Zhou and two friends like it had chased after other people.
Instead of cluster together and making themselves as big as possible, the people in the Zhou group decided to drop to the ground and play dead. That tactic is not advised unless a charging bear is within inches of making contact with you.
In this case, when the people hit the ground, the bear came to investigate and eventually scratched and then bit Zhou. Her friends then jumped up and started throwing rocks at the bear. The rocks drove the animal off.
Park service officials judged the aggressive animal dangerous and decided to kill it. (Denali National Park and Preserve has a surplus of grizzlies.) Savage area trails and parking lots were closed while the hunt was underway, and foot and bicycle traffic on the Denali Park Road was banned.
But rangers hunting for the bear couldn’t find it and about 10-days later announced plans for a phased reopening of the area. They were into the final phases when a bear showed up.
Officials are unsure whether it is the bear or another bear. Reports from several different sightings have been vague, according to wildlife biologist Patricia Owen. Biologists aren’t even sure if there is a single bear or multiple bears back in the area.
Plenty of bears
“No one who can positively identify the sightings as being the bear whose behavior caused the closures initially has seen a bear in the area,” the agency said in a press release, which quoted Owen saying that despite a lack of official sightings, caution is warranted.
“Until we have reasonable confirmation that it is, or is not, the bear in question, we must be prudent,” Owen said. “No one who can make a positive identification of this bear has seen it.”
It could be another bear. Denali has plenty. But the possibility it is the same one returning to a familiar haunt cannot be ignored. And there appears to have been another problem bear or bears in the general area.
A bear or bears is believed to have damaged a water bottle and bladder at the nearby Sanctuary Campground this week. Sanctuary is only 10 miles deeper into the park than Savage River along the Park Road.
The small Sanctuary campground has been closed while rangers sort out the situation there.
Rangers said that if they confirm the same sub-adult bear is in the Savage-Sanctuary area and again approaching people, it will be killed. Grizzlies that have lost their fear of humans are inherently dangerous, and there are no zoos in need of grizzlies.
While rangers investigate the latest incident, the Park Road remains open to private vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians from 6 a.m. to 9:30 pm. daily, though that could change at any time. Most other parking areas and trail remains open as well, but camping at Savag has again been limited to “hard-sided vehicles.”
People headed into the park are advised to brush up on their knowledge of how to deal with bears. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides a wealth of information on its website.
Up-to-the-minute announcements on trail, campground and road closings, or openings, can be found on the Denali Park website.