As details emerge about a Wednesday grizzly bear attack that injured three people only about a dozen miles from downtown Anchorage, it is beginning to look like one of those chance meetings between bears and people that regularly go awry in the 49th state.
In this case, four hikers headed upriver from a bedroom community campground on a well-used riverside trail encountered a sow grizzly with two young cubs that had wandered onto the same path, according to officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
What happened next remains unclear.
No grizzly bear activity had been reported in the area previously although there had been a black bear visiting the campground with some regularity.
“This was our first report of a brown bear in the area,” said Kurt Hensel, chief ranger for Chugach State Park.
The park oversees the campground in a green belt along the glacial Eagle River just north of Anchorage.The greenbelt is a part of the half-million acre wilderness park. Bears, both grizzly and black, are common in the park; in the adjacent community of Eagle River, Anchorage’s biggest suburb; and around the city of Anchorage itself.
Nearly a decade ago, the city made the national news after a rash of bear attacks.
“Attacks by Bears Put Anchorage on Edge,” the New York Times proclaimed then.
Discussions followed locally about whether Anchorage and the adjacent park had become home to too many bears, particularly grizzly bears. Hunting seasons for grizzlies in parts of the Chugach Park were liberalized the next year, problems appeared to lessen, and worries about too many bears faded away.
There is no evidence the hunting helped, but it probably didn’t hurt. It might be hurting now. Hunters select for big bears, and big bears are proven killers of smaller bears. Wildlife biologists studying bears in Denali National Park for years have noted the park’s low cub survival of 35 percent compared to “survival in the Susitna area of Alaska, where hunting for grizzly bears is allowed, was 67 percent.”
Thought it’s been years since the bears put Anchorage on edge, as the Times described it, bears are still regularly an issue in the Anchorage area.
Seven bears have been shot in defense of life and property, an action legal in Alaska, already this year. Another was electrocuted, apparently after climbing an electric pole in the city, and yet another – a grizzly – was so seriously injured when hit by a car that police had to kill it.
A walk in the park
The Anchorage/Eagle River area remains a place where you can meet a bear almost anywhere. Most of those meetings end peacefully. The Wednesday meeting did not.
Early indications are the sow viewed the hikers as a threat, neutralized them and then took off with her cubs, said Ken Marsh, spokesman for the Wildlife Conservation Division of Fish and Game. The bears have not been seen since shortly after the attack when they were reported to have charged some of the more than a dozen APD officers who responded to the scene.
The police officers opened fire. The bear was hit, but not seriously so. Marsh said wildlife biologists called in to track the animal found some blood, but the blood trail quickly petered out.
He said biologists were Thursday interviewing those attacked and trying to figure out exactly what happened. Police on Wednesday said only that “it has been determined that four juveniles were hiking together in the woods in the area of the campground.”
It now appears some of that report was wrong. Hensel on Thursday said the hikers appeared to be in their “late teens, early 20s.” Police later that day sent out on a “correction-update” on the incident referring to the hikers as one juvenile and “three young adults.”
Cone of silence
APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad refused to reveal their ages. She emailed first that she didn’t have them, then later sent this: “I was told by the on-scene lieutenant that all four were juveniles. I’m not giving you exact ages as I’m not giving out specific victim information.”
Along with refusing to provide the ages of the people attacked, she said she couldn’t provide their names or any other information, including whether any of the injuries were serious, because “this was not a criminal event. For APD, this was essentially a medical assist. We do not release the names of people we help in medical situations.”
APD officials did earlier say the injuries the hikers suffered were “non life-threatening.”
Why the secrecy surrounding the event is unclear. Alaska State Troopers regularly report the names of people attacked by bears in Alaska. APD’s silence has only added to the mystery of “what happened?’ when the hikers met the bear.
“That’s a very good question,” Hensel said, adding that he had no clue.
Bear attacks on three or more people are rare as long as the people stay together. Betty Snyder, a visitor to Denali National Park last year, shot a series of photos of a group of three being directed by park rangers on how to drive off a curious grizzly.
In Yellowstone National Park, the national park service now recommends a group size of four or more. There is general agreement the bigger the group the better. Groups of people appear to intimidate bears.
But the safety provided by the group works only so long as the group stays together. One of the worst Alaska bear attacks in recent times involved seven students in a National Outdoor Leadership School class in the summer of 2011.
They were hiking in the Talkeetna Mountains about 100 miles north of Anchorage when attacked. Four of the students were injured; two of them seriously.
NOLs conducted an exhaustive investigation of the incident. It reported the hikers panicked and scattered when the bear charged. The report suggested the animal might not have been aware it was attacking a group.
“We understand that Student 1, Student 2 and the others responded to this situation out of surprise and fear, but this response to the bear may have exacerbated the situation,” the report said. “The students … were surprised and scared and instinctively reacted contrary to established practices and how they were taught to respond to a bear encounter at close range.”
APD’s refusals to provide information as to what happened at Eagle River, coupled with the early APD report that “the group became separated as some went looking for help,” has fueled speculation that something similar might have happened in this case.
But the only thing that is clear is that the hikers were widely separated by the time APD arrived.
“Over a dozen officers responded; it took approximately 30 minutes after the initial call to Dispatch for all four hikers to be located,” APD reported.