With four bear attacks in two months in an area about the size of Phoenix, Southeast Alaska has what can only be called a “bear-attack cluster.”
Most of America is more familiar with “cancer clusters,” those odd situations in which a significant number of cancer cases occur in a limited geographic area. Almost invariably, cancer clusters raise concerns about exposure to environmental pollutants, although such links are rarely found, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The grizzly-attack cluster in the Tongass National Forest east of the small coastal community of Sitka has also raised questions about a potential link to environmental causes.
After a pair of Forest Service employees had to kill a charging brown bear to save themselves near the end of August in the third of the four attacks, Perry Edwards, the Sitka district ranger for the Tongass, speculated the bears of the Alexander Archipelago’s ABC Islands – closely clustered Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof – might be feeling stressed by low salmon returns.
His comments followed a serious, mid-August mauling on Chichagof and an early August self-defense bear shooting on Baranof, the same island on which the two rangers killed the bear that charged them. Since then, a bear has attacked and mauled a man on Admiralty.
Southeast brown bears are the 1,000-pound coastal cousins of Alaska’s Interior grizzly bears. Scientists used to believe these were different bears, but modern genetic studies have shown them to be the same bears shaped by different diets.
With Southeast salmon runs down this year, the thinking is that the big brown bears of the coast are on the grizzly diet of the Interior and none too happy about it.
Edwards told Robert Woolsey of KCAW public radio in Sitka that he was suspicious bears were left stressed due to a salmon shortage after a couple mild winters that boosted the bear population thanks to better over-winter cub survival.
“Maybe the bear was defending that fishing spot and was at the point where, ‘one more creature comes by my fishing spot and I’m going to give them a what-for that they will always remember,'” he said in speculating on the attack on the two, unnamed Forest Service employees.
There is precious little evidence to back up this sort of theory, but there is some. Scientists observing bears have noted the animals appear to become less tolerant of each other when salmon are in short supply. And the loss of tolerance might extend to humans.
Days of the grizzly
The Sitka attacks started on August 7 when Sitka’s Don Kluting, a veteran outdoorsman who used to lead search-and rescue operations for that community, was forced to shoot a sow that charged him and hiking companion Denise Turley near the head of Nakwasina Sound on the west side of the 1,600-square-mile Baranof Island wilderness.
The pair stumbled into a sow with two cubs along Lisa Creek. The cubs fled. The sow didn’t. Kluting, who was packing a .44-magnum revolver, pulled his gun. He fired a warning shot when the charging bear was at something less than 15 yards. Warnings shots are usually just a waste of ammunition.
“She ran through that without even flinching,” Kluting later told Daily Sitka Sentinel staff writer Brielle Schaeffer. “I barely had time to get the hammer back for another shot before she reached me. I got lucky and ended up hitting her in the head (with the second shot). The whole situation unfolded and happened so fast we didn’t have time to think.”
The bear ended up dead only about five feet from Kluting and Turley, who were unharmed.
Eleven days later, less than 20 miles to the northeast, Anna “Marika” Powers, a 41-year-0ld guide for the small boat tour company Uncruise Adventures, was not as lucky as Kluting and Turley when she ran into a sow with cubs.
Powers was carrying a canister of pepper spray for protection against bears as she led a group of 22 hikers along a trail from the edge of Peril Strait to Sitkoh Lake near the southeast tip of the 2,050-square-mile Chichagof Island wilderness, but she never got a chance to use it.
As Powers clients retreated back down the trail on her command, the bear charged and began mauling her. She was saved by the heroic efforts of 26-year-old Michael Justa, a fellow guide at the tail end of the string of 22 clients, who pushed forward against the flow to reach Powers.
Justa pepper sprayed the sow and drove it off. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was called to rescue Powers, who spent weeks in a Seattle hospital and is still recovering. Her boss at Uncruise, Dan Blanchard, said he legs were badly torn up by the bear.
Powers was still in the hospital in Seattle when the next attack came just nine days later almost directly across three-mile-wide Peril Strait at Appleton Creek. This time the attacks were only about eight miles apart, and the details were similar.
A pair of hikers, in this case a Forest Service stream crew, spotted a bear, again a sow, close ahead. The distance was about 50 yards. The bear saw the people about the same time the people saw bear, but instead of fleeing – the norm in these situations – the bear charged.
The Forest Service issues powerful .375-caliber H&H rifles to its field crews and schools them in how to use the weapon. The work crew opened fire and killed the bear at a distance of about 30 feet. They later discovered two cubs of the year up a tree near where the bear had first been seen.
The fourth attack, this one about 20 miles to the east in the wilderness of the 1,650-square-mile Admiralty Island National Monument, came on Sept. 22. It differed only slightly from the other attacks in that it happened at night, and it is unknown for sure whether the bear was a sow or boar.
Big-game guide LaVern Beier of Juneau and client Douglas Adkins from Kentucky were hiking back to their boat in Chaik Bay after an unsuccessful day of bear hunting when they found a bear. This was charged into the beams of the headlamps they were wearing and kept coming.
“The bear came right at him (the guide), got hold of the client, causing non-life threatening injuries,” Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Aaron Frenzel told Juneau Empire reporter Lisa Phu.
The attack reportedly lasted but seconds before the bear fled into the darkness. Beier managed to get Adkins back to the boat from which the U.S. Coast Guard was summoned. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene shortly after to hoist Adkins and take him to the Juneau hospital. He is now recovering.
Brown/grizzly bear tolerance for humans is not easily predictable and appears highly variable. The vast majority of bears – both grizzly and much-less-aggressive black bears – appear afraid of people and beat a retreat, often unnoticed, if they sense people nearby. Some bears, on the other hand, have been known to detect and approach people, sometimes from considerable distance.
Only rarely do bears attack, however, and most often it happens when they are surprised and must make instantaneous decisions to fight or flee. Which of those they do, some biologists now believe, might be linked to how tolerant bears have become to other bears, as well as people, and that appears to be a food issue.
“Bear social relationships were governed largely by variations in resource abundance,” researcher Allan L. Egbert wrote after studying bears at Brooks in the 1970s, “despite energetic and psychological costs imposed by the bear concentration on individual animals, salmon were evidently sufficiently numerous that these costs were outweighed by returns in protein.”
Egbert theorized that the Gulf Coast brown bears of McNeil, normally not the most tolerant of animals, continued to maintain “territories” while at McNeil, but that those territories shrunk to very small sizes when salmon became abundant.
It would not be unreasonable to expect the exact opposite might happen as salmon became less abundant, said Anthony Crupi, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who studied bear concentrations on the Chilkoot River near Haines and now works in Juneau.
Biologists who have worked around Alaska bears at McNeil, Brooks, Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Pack Creek on Admiralty and elsewhere that bears congregate have all observed that when abundant food is available, the bears become both more tolerant of each other and of people.
Charlie Vandergaw, a retired Alaska teacher who ended up in big trouble with the law for trying to make pets of a bears, always made sure to keep his ursine “friends” well fed. Over the years, he flew tons of dog food to his “Bear Haven” homestead northwest of Anchorage to help keep high the tolerance of his the bears, both grizzlies and blacks.
Over the years, he trained some of them to behave much like oversize dogs. Vandergaw was injured by “his” bears a few times but never seriously so.
Timothy Treadwell – a confused, Calfornia, movie-actor wannabe with some similarities to Vandergaw – spent 13 summers trying to make friends of the well-fed grizzlies along the Gulf of Alaska coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. He hugged and kissed bears. He baby sat grizzly cubs. He was never seriously injured until the year he stayed too long.
In 2003, Treadwell failed to depart the park at the end of the summer as was his custom and stayed into October. Exactly why will never be known. What is known that bears enter a state of hyperhagaia – a sort of last, wild, feeding frenzy – just before hibernation in Katmai. It is a time when they will consume almost any food they can find.
Treadwell and an unfortunate girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, became bear food. Authorities later killed two grizzlies near what was left of Treadwell’s camp. Goodly parts of the two humans were found inside the stomach of the older and larger of the bears.
Not a clear-cut case
That said, it remains hard to draw any firm conclusions on bear behavior around people when food is short.
Respected Canadian researcher Stephen Herrero wrote in “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” that he could find no “evidence that grizzly bear attacks on people increase with food/crop failure,” although he did find indications black bears might become more dangerous in such situations.
Black bears are smaller cousins of the brown/grizzly bears and generally the least dangerous.
“The problem here is that bear attacks, as awful as they are, are extremely rare events and an uptick of two or three is not enough to claim significance in an increase over ‘normal’ times,” emailed Tom Smith, a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who has spent much of his career studying Alaska bears
Cupri said he spent a lot of time on the Chilkoot trying to determine if hungry bears became less tolerant than well-fed bears.
“There wasn’t any clear correlation,” he said. “I wish I had the answer to that question. It makes sense that if bears are spending more time having to interact with each other rather than foraging,” they could get irritable.
But there just isn’t any solid evidence.
Still, all the experts agree an irritated bear can easily and quickly make a mess of a human.
“It does warrant watching the situation more closely,” Smith said, “and, as always, people should be always wary but perhaps more so when such trends occur.”
So if you’re headed for the ABC Islands of Southeast, be especially bear aware. Something that might be a good idea almost anywhere in the 49th state until the bears enter hibernation.