Dangerous bear


Cynthia Dusel-Bacon/USGS photo

This story has been updated

When Cynthia Dusel-Bacon read of a geologist killed by a bear and another injured near the Pogo Mine in Interior Alaska on Monday, the news hit awfully close to home despite the years that have passed since she spent large amounts of time in-country.

The latest bear attack came not far from where Dusel-Bacon, now 70, survived one of the more horrific bear attacks in Alaska history. Her story came to be headlined “Come quick! I’m being eaten by a bear” in Alaska author Larry Kanuit’s book “Alaska Bear Tales.”

Those were the words Dusel-Bacon spoke into a radio as a black bear tried to eat her alive in 1977. Afterward, having lost her arms but survived the attack, she was to become the textbook example of the danger posed by “predatory black bears” and what not to do to try to save yourself from such a bear.

“At first she tried to intimidate the black bear and get it to flee,” Canadian scientist Stephen Herrero would write in his now famous book, “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.   “In 99 percent of such encounters, she probably would have been successful. Where she erred, in my judgement. was in playing dead after the attack occurred and the bear began chewing on her. I don’t know if by this time she still had the strength to fight back, but if she could have grabbed a stout stick or rock, she might have had some chance of deterring the bear if she struck it.”

In the wake of two black bear attacks that left people dead in two days in the 49th state – one attack near the state’s largest city and the other near the Goodpaster River in the wild heart of Alaska – bears are on the minds of many.

The dangers of long-clawed, sometimes volatile grizzly bears that can grow to as much as 1,000 pounds and tower over any man have long been recognized in the 49th state.

But some have been prone to take their smaller cousin much less seriously. A few even scoff at the idea of predatory black bears, though their existence is well documented.

Herrero and a team of fellow scientists in a 2011 paper concluded “that most fatal black bear attacks were predatory….”

Powerful grizzly bears can easily kill people by accident if surprised and acting in what they perceive to be defense of themselves or their young. Much smaller black bears, a quarter the size, need to act deliberately to subdue humans.

A predatory attack

Wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game believe the first attack this week, an attack which left 16-year-old Patrick Cooper dead, involved a  predatory black bear. The second attack, about which authorities have released few details to date, also appears to have involved a black bear but little more is known.

The victim in that attack has been identified only as an employee of a contractor for Pogo Mine, the state’s largest underground mine. Alaska State Troopers reported “the name of the deceased is being withheld pending positive identification from the state medical examiner,” suggesting the victim was not easily and readily recognizable.

She and another geologist, a woman, were exploring new mineral deposits about five miles from the mine when attacked. Mine officials shot and killed an adult, black bear in the area of the attacks, according to state wildlife officials in Fairbanks, who said a necropsy did not find much material in the bear’s stomach.

They didn’t know much else and referred questions to trooper Lt. Justin Rodgers, who did not return phone calls.

Dusel-Bacon, who read of the attack online, said it sounded all too familiar.

“I mapped all around Pogo,” she said. “Near Pogo was where my accident happened.

“I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t really put myself in a frame of mind to relive it, but I feel sorry” for the victim.

Bear safety

What Dusel-Bacom remembers most passionately about her attack all these years later is that she was forbidden from carrying a gun. A supervisor with the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency for which was working, did not allow weapons.

“After my accident in 1977, the USGS started a training program for anyone wanting to carry a gun,” she said. Wilderness geologists also got training in how to deal with bears.

“Everyone knows about bears now,” she said. When she read that Parker had tried to run from the black bear that killed him, she said, “that was sad. The kid was so young.”

The thing to do with black bears, which Dusel-Bacon described as “sneaky,” is to stand up to them. She has ample experience with bears. After her accident, she returned to work as a field geologist in Alaska for about 15 years.

“My husband (volcanologist Charles Bacon) was my sample collector and my bear protector,” she said of that period. He carried a gun, and Dusel-Bacon is convinced a gun saved her friend Marti Miller, now the chief geologist at for the USGS in Alaska. 

Guns are a much debated subject. Tom Smith, a biologist who used to work for the USGS but is now a professor at Brigham Young University, did a couple of studies that have been used to argue bear spray more effective than guns for stopping bears.

The first looked at 83 incidents in Alaska from 1985 to 2006 in which spray was used on bears. That study found that the spray stopped polar bears 100 percent of the time, grizzly bears 92 percent of the time, and black bears 90 percent of the time. Probably more importantly, it discovered that 98 percent of the people who used spray on bears escaped uninjured, and the injuries to the three who didn’t were minor.

Smith later did a second study examining 269 Alaska bear incidents in which firearms were used. The encounters stretched from 1883 to 2009. Smith found that handguns successfully stopped 84 percent of encounters and long guns 76 percent, and he and his fellow researchers concluded the “findings suggest that only those proficient in firearms use should rely on them for protection in bear country.”

The two studies have been read to mean that pepper spray is better than a firearm for protection from bears, but there are so many variables in bear-human encounters that which is better can be argued to death.

The only thing clear is that the spray is better for the bears in that they survive.

Sneaky bears

Dusel-Bacon said Miller’s case involved being stalked by a black bear.

“Her experience was the exactly same as mine,” Dusel-Bacon said. “(But) Marti Miller’s story has a happy ending which mine should have been.”

Miller was working in the Interior of the state somewhere north of McGrath when she climbed a ridge and looked back to spot “a bear following her trail sniffing,” Dusel-Bacon said.

Miller immediately headed to the top of a hill and tried to call for a helicopter. She didn’t have time.

“She did a 360 (look around), and here comes the bear,” Dusel-Bacon said. “She shot and killed it.”

Dusel-Bacon said the bear that stalked her also provided an ample opportunity to kill it, but she had no weapon.

“It popped up 10 feet away,” she said. “I tried to scare it away. I didn’t see it run around me, and then it knocked me on my face.”

She would have died but for some luck and a radio that allowed her to call for help.

“After chewing on my right shoulder, arm and side repeatedly,” Dusel-Bacon told Kanuit, “the bear began to bite my head and tear at my scalp. As I heard the horrible crunching sound of the bear’s teeth biting into my skull, I realized it was all too hopeless. I remember thinking, ‘This has got to the worst way to go.’ I knew it would be a slow death because my vital signs were all still strong. My fate was to bleed to death.”

“Bears,” retired state wildlife biologist John Hechtel once observed, “don’t kill; they eat.”

Luckily for Dusel-Bacon, this one decided to drag its meal to a better dining area. The effort tired the animal, which Dusel-Bacon observed, “sat down to rest.” The pause gave her an opportunity to use her one good arm to get to the radio in her backpack.

With her right arm useless, she used her left to pull up three links of antennae, key the mike, and say as loudly as she dared, “Ed, this is Cynthia. Come quick. I’m being eaten by a bear.”

Dusel-Bacon later said she used the word “eaten” because she was by then convinced this was no mauling, that the bear was indeed trying to eat her. She got in one more plea for Ed to come and a short description of her location before the bear was on her again.

She remembered wondering if the bear was going to work on old wounds or open new wounds. She did get a slight reprieve when it bit into her backpack, found some cans of food she’d brought for lunch, and started crunching those.

Help from above

Then she heard the helicopter coming past, going away and finally hovering over her. She stared kicking her legs, the only thing she could move, to show she was alive, but the helo moved off again.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told Kanuit. “For some completely senseless, heartless, stupid reason they’d left me for a second time.”

Only later would she learn that the pilot had gone to pick up other geologists knowing that he’d need a spotter to help find Dusel-Bacon in thick cover and helpers to get her up a hill and into the helo.

It wasn’t long after he’d returned and landed that she was aboard and on her way to a hospital in Fairbanks. The damage was severe. Her mangled left arm was amputated just below the shoulder. Doctors tried to save her right arm with a vein graft, but an infection forced an amputation that took the entire arm.

She spent six weeks in the hospital and months learning to use her artificial arms. But she went on to have a successful career.

“Amazingly, Ms. Dusel-Bacon recovered,” the Almanac, a newspaper serving Menlo Park, Calif., reported in 2004. “She has continued working as a geologist ever since. She manages efficiently and unself-consciously with two hooks in place of her arms. In 1981, she got the Department of Interior award for an employee with disabilities.”

She is retired now but maintains an office with the USGS at Menlo Park as an emeritus.


Dusel-Bacon once thought an encounter with a sow with cubs might have been involved in her being attacked even though she never saw a cub. The belief that black bear sows with cubs are especially dangerous has now been largely debunked.

The 2011 study by Herrero and others dismissed the idea that black bears with cubs are prone to attack, flat out declaring “females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.” The study found the predatory bears were lone animals.

In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Herrero even raised the possibility of human-hunting loner bears.

“Most attacks killed one person, but in three cases two or three people were killed by the same bear within several hours,” the Times’ Pam Belluck reported. “And once, in Saskatchewan, a bear that killed one person tried to kill another several days later.

“‘That person was able to kill the bear, and when they skinned out the bear they found the remains of the other person,’ said Dr. Herrero, suggesting that bears that have been aggressive once will be more likely to try again.”

Still, Herrero and the other scientists stressed that black bear attacks remain extremely rare with only 63 in 110 years.

“Each year, millions of interactions between people and black bears occur without any injury to a person,” they wrote. 

Statistically, grizzlies remain far more dangerous. But the scientists cautioned that black bears are not to be taken lightly, especially in wild areas where the predatory attacks concentrated.

“We speculate that many black bears in Canada and Alaska had less contact with people because the human population is about 10 percent of the population in the lower 48 states,” they said. “Most black bear populations in Canada had far less hunting pressure.

“Also many black bears in Canada or Alaska existed in less productive and less diverse habitat with periodic food stress, perhaps predisposing some bears to consider people as prey. All, some, or none of the foregoing factors may have contributed to the greater proportion of fatal attacks in Canada and Alaska versus the lower 48.”

Despite this, some Alaskans still adhere to the mythical belief in the danger of black bear sows with cubs.

“‘Stumbling into a rare predatory bear’ is not substantiated by facts,” Myron Rosenberg, an Alaska photographer posted Facebook in response to the first attack. “You don’t know this to be the nature of the bear’s behavior….The truth is, the bear was most likely startled, or had its offspring intruded upon. The bear acted like a bear.”

The last observation is on its face illogical. If all black bears acted like the one that attacked 16-year-old Cooper – or if attacking when startled was a normal reaction for black bears – there would likely be an attack a day in Alaska.

Alaskans should be happy that doesn’t happen. They should feel lucky most bears want nothing to do with people.

12 replies »

  1. There’s been some bear problems periodically in Arizona, almost always in the midst of drought when the belief is that prey options are significantly limited. An unfortunate favorite local trick is to pull people out of tents in the middle of the night. Pretty damned horrifying, but I should think bear spray at the ready might be a useful deterrent.

  2. In answer to Rod Arno, I ride my bike on the Coastal Trail nearly every day. In the winter I ski it a lot. Never once have I encountered a suspicious person. On both the Chester Creek and Campbell Creek trails I’ve had problems with people. One advantage to carrying bear spray is you can use it on people with less serious consequences than if you shoot them with a Colt 45.

    • Armed with pepper spray is just fine, I’ve got no problem with that.
      At point blank range it’s just as good as a firearm for detering bears. Should be as effective on bad people too, I would imagine.

    • The Bears are very upset on the killing of their loved ones in their dens with their young. They are in survival mode. How would you feel, if you came home and realized your family was brutally murdered? This is what’s happening. Bears are extremely intelligent and communicate with other animals. All the bear safety rules go out the window when this happens, and the Bears are angry. This not only affects Alaska, since Bears roam far and wide, east to west coast. Bears are not loners. They have a strong family tie and visit each other through out their lives. Just because the government passed a law to hunt Bears in their dens, doesn’t mean it’s right or that there are no consequences. All animals can track a car, person etc. If this continues, I fear all animals will turn on us. No one will be safe, in their homes, cars, schools, shopping, etc. Please try to talk to these hunters and try to explain to them what is happening…if the killing of Bears does not stop, it will get far worse…for us all…that is why, Native Americans consider the Bears sacred animals, so we can live in peace with them…My prayers for all the family’s who lost loved ones…it’s not the Bears fault…it’s the fault of man…

      • I also want to say…that everyone in Alaska should stop hunting Bears in their Dens A.S.A.P., and citizens should give the Bears space right now to cope with their loss…I don’t know how many Dens were hunted in, but by these attacks, I know that’s what’s happening. You see I grew up in PA with Bears in a rural area, so I know a little about them.

  3. It’s ridiculous to compare the results of Tom Smith’s 2008 bear spray study to the results of his 2012 gun study. The gun study included incidents when people did not have time to use their firearm–about 25%. The bear spray study only included incidents when people had time to use their bear spray. According to the methodology for the gun study, the authors reviewed “bear attacks.” In contrast, the majority of incidents in the bear spray study involved bears that were curious or seeking food. Just 9 incidents involved charging brown/grizzly bears, and 3 people who sprayed these bears were injured. But the most important factor is that the gun study did not include all firearms successes. It’s relatively easy to find records of bear attacks, because when bears injure or kill people it makes the news. How to you find records of firearms successes in 1963, let alone 1883? Bear spray is a different story. All national parks in Alaska keep detailed records of bear sightings, so of course there are records of bear encounters and incidents when people successfully used bear spray. Finding records of firearms successes for a study that covered the years 1883-2009 if far more difficult. Hundreds if not thousands of firearms successes were not accounted for in Tom Smith’s bear spray study–which only included data on 283 incidents.

    • Dave: i couldn’t agree more. i carry bear spray almost every day on the bike or when i run, which i don’t do nearly as much as i used to, but only because it’s convenient. like you, i don’t think the gun v. spray issue is as clearcut here as some people like to make it. i would note that in the Chichagof Island (Sitkoh Lake Trail) incident last year, the young guide who rushed in to spray the sow stomping his boss got roughed up for his efforts. the spray got the bear off the other guide, but the sow was probably about done with her anyway given this was a clear, in-defense-of-cubs attack. and i will confess that when i’ve gone up valley to investigate moose kills (we’ve had several in the middle of neighborhood trails in recent years), i’ve always taken the short-barreled shotgun with the extended magazine stuffed full of slugs. likewise when a neighbor and i went tracking the grizzly shot, apparently in the ass, in another neighbor’s garage. needless to say, our local law enforcement/Fish and Wildlife authorities followed that one about 100 yards into the woods and decided that it was out of the neighborhood. that was probably a good thing, because the first of a series of beds was only a little farther on. there were many of those, each with less blood. we tracked that bear until it stopped bleeding (they are tremendously tough animals) and let it go. hopefully it learned about the dangers of humans. most of the bears around the neighborhood of late seem to get it. they have been seen little, but caught regularly on various folks’ trail cams. that pattern of behavior well illustrates that the danger of bears is sometimes vastly over inflated, but it is also very real.

  4. Having spent a bunch of time taking people out to kill bears I found bears to be a lot like the people you run into on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
    Regardless of the bears color they are just like people, most are good some are predators.
    It’s always best to be armed and paying attention then to suffer the consequences.

  5. Once when I was living in Kotzebue I commented to a local elder that Natives are seldom the victims of bear attacks, despite a high percentage of Natives living in bear country. “That’s because you never see a Native out in the woods or on the tundra without a 12 gauge shotgun” he answered. A gun is not the only defense against bears but when the others fail it’s the one that works.

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