Wildlife authorities in Alaska’s largest city were Monday searching for a wounded black bear believed to be involved in a deadly, Sunday attack on a 16-year-old runner.
The body of Patrick Cooper was found in heavy cover just off a popular trail up Bird Ridge in the Chugach Mountains Sunday afternoon. A search for him began after his brother reported a phone conservation in which the missing runner described being chased by a bear.
According to witnesses at the scene, the conversation between the two young men ended but the phone continued to transmit sounds of a scuffle.
Wildlife experts warn against running from an attacking black bear. They say such bears, rare as they might be, are chasing people as prey and humans should fight back in any way they can with any means at hand.
Cooper was described by friends as a special needs student in Anchorage, and it was unclear if he’d had any training into how to deal with Alaska bears. But Bird Ridge did not appear a very bear-dangerous place on Sunday.
Beneath blue skies in warm, sometimes hot, weather, it was busy with runners, spectators and officials involved with a mountain run up the popular Bird Ridge Trail. Given the number of people swarming the ridge, some observed it might have been the state’s safest place for a near-wilderness run on Sunday.
Cooper was among the last of dozens of runners hiking down the trail after the run when the bear attacked.
After the phone call to his brother, his brother and mother, who’d also run the race, notified race organizers of what was happening. Gangs of runners almost immediately started up the mountain to look for Cooper. They located the teenager and the bear while authorities were still rushing to the scene.
Brad Benter, a master’s runner, said he was with a group of teens who found themselves on one side of the bear with John Weddleton, an Anchorage municipal assemblyman, alone on the other side.
“We got there right away,” Benter said.
The bear was in very rough, brushy country beneath a steep, talus-covered slope some distance off the main Bird Ridge Trail. Benter, a wildlife biologist with considerable experience in the Alaska backcountry, said the terrain was such it was unlikely the bear could have dragged Cooper into the thicket.
Other runners said all indications were that Cooper got chased off the main trail onto one of the many sides trails that parallel the trail. It is possible he got into rough terrain and injured himself or died before the bear attacked. Alaska State Troopers said an investigation into the cause of death is continuing.
Unarmed except for pepper spray, Benter said his group yelled back and forth with Weddelton about what to do. Benter said he has had experience with the failure of bear spray on adrenaline-charged bears and wasn’t sure about organizing the kids into a team to drive the bear off for fear someone else might get hurt.
“(The bear) didn’t have any fear of the group,” he said.
There was also a concern about pushing the bear into Weddleton, a lone, relatively small man. Weddleton, Benter said, could see Cooper’s body and described the young man as motionless and bloody. The bear didn’t respond to Weddleton’s efforts to drive it off either, and Benter said that in a subsequent phone conversation with authorities his group was told to “stand down.”
“It was no fun being there for an hour and a half (afer that),” he said.
Eventually, a Chugach State Park ranger arrived with a shotgun and reportedly put a slug in the head of the bear only to have it disappear into the brush. The carcass has yet to be found despite considerable searching on Monday, Marsh said.
Whether authorities shot the bear that attacked Cooper has yet to be determined.
A number of bears were seen in the Bird Ridge area on Sunday. There was a report of a lone grizzly and a sow black bear with cubs. The latter rarely attack people and almost never pursue people as prey as is thought to have been the case here.
“The attack appears to be predatory in nature,” Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Monday.
Predatory attacks by black bears are rare but well documented in North America. Canadian bear researcher Stephen Herrero and fellow scientists found 63 deaths in 59 such attacks over a 110 year span in the U.S. and Canada.
Their 2011 study – “Fatal attacks by American black bear on people: 1900 to 2009” – fingered wilderness bears as more dangerous than their urban area cousins, and noted a serious uptick in attacks in the last 50 years.
“There were 3.5 times as many fatal attacks in Canada and Alaska but only 1.75 times as many black bears, and much less human contact for black bears in Canada and Alaska,” the study said. “Some jurisdictions had no fatal black bear attacks but had large estimated black bear populations. Of fatal attacks, 86 percent occurred between 1960 and 2009.”
Lone, male bears
The bears involved were almost always lone bears. The bear suspected in the Bird Ridge attack was reported to be a lone bear.
“We judged that the bear involved acted as a predator in 88 percent of fatal incidents,” the study said. “Adult or sub-adult male bears were involved in 92 percent of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears. That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.”
The black bear that attacked Cooper does not quite fit the profile of the average predatory bear. It was inhabiting an area where it was likely to have had considerable contact with people.
The Bird Ridge Trail only about 25 miles southeast of Anchorage is one of the most popular in the half-million-acre Chugach State Park. It starts just off the Seward Highway between the Anchorage bedroom communities of Bird and Indian. Nearby Bird Creek attracts mobs of anglers when salmon hit the stream in late summer.