Updated on June 23 to include other bear spray failures
A black bear that killed a 27-year-old Anchorage woman in central Alaska on Monday appears to have hunted down the woman and a colleague while they were conducting environmental surveys for the Pogo Mine.
The bear jumped one of the women from behind before she had any chance react, and then moved on to the woman’s colleague, their employer, himself a wildlife biologist, said Thursday.
An attempt to drive the bear off with pepper spray failed. The efficacy of pepper spray has been questioned in other cases involving predatory black bears.
Dead is 27-year-old Erin Johnson, a lifelong Alaskan who grew up in Anchorage and celebrated her wedding only two weeks ago. Injured was 38-year-old Ellen Trainor of Fairbanks.
Both had spent countless hours in the Alaska wilderness and were well familiar with bears.
They were working in brushy terrain in the Tanana uplands when attacked, said Steve Murphy, the president of Alaska Biological Research said Thursday. ABR is a small, environmental consulting firm that started in Fairbanks before adding an office in Anchorage.
ABR staff were in shock over a seemingly inexplicable incident.
“Both of them were very experienced outdoor people,” Murphy said, but the experience could not save them from a predatory black bear.
“This bear approached them from behind and took Ellen Trainor down,” he said. “Things get a little murky after that.”
Trainor didn’t sense the bear until it was within 10 feet, and she had no time to react. Murphy thinks her backpack, which the bear chewed on, might have saved her. With Trainor down, the bear moved on to Johnson as Trainor struggled to get a can of bear spray out of a holster on the pack’s waist band.
She succeeded in doing that, but the spray was of limited use, Murphy said.
“Ellen was able to spray the bear twice,” Murphy said, “but the bear came back….We’re trying to understand this.”
There has been some past research indicating that black bears can rather quickly recover from being sprayed.
“I don’t know why,” Stephen Herrero, the dean of bear research said Thursday evening, “but it showed up in the data.”
As in this case, Herrero said, the spray initially drove bears off, but they came back. This is, however, the first time a fatality has been associated with the failure of bear spray.
Harrowing Canadian story
A Canadian biologist working in remote Ontario in June 2013 reported he was able to keep a black bear at bay by spraying it in the face several times, but the bear persisted in trying to take him down.
Rob Foster “said the bear charged at him repeatedly — even after he used his bear spray,” the CBC reported at the time.
“We were like two feet away [at one point],” Foster told CBC. “He’d stick his head out one side of the jack pine, and I’d threaten to spray and he’d stick his head on the other side of the tree. It was almost comical, if the stakes hadn’t been so high.”
Foster said he felt lucky to get out of the encounter alive.
Brad Benter, an Alaska biologist who ironically happened to be at the scene of a separate predatory bear attack only a day before the Pogo incident, said “I’ve sprayed two different black bears at close range, both times with little to no reaction- once in the field on a weather port platform above the bear, with safe retreat, once from a deck of a house, also with safe retreat. I believe it is better than nothing, but I also don’t count on it working.”
Foster’s experience was similar to Benter’s. Foster now teaches bear safety in Ontario and says he was lucky to have the spray with him despite its limited effectiveness.
“I sprayed (the bear) four times,” he said in a Friday telephone interview. “The first time I sprayed him at maybe two and a half meters (about 8 feet). I wanted to make sure I got him good.”
The bear ran off, but shortly came back, Foster said. It would keep running off and coming back for 45 minutes.
Attacking a bear
Foster, who has worked around both black and grizzly bears in the Yukon Territory, Canada, and lions in Africa, said he had no doubt the black bear had decided the man was prey and was trying to set him up for a kill. The bear was constantly circling to get behind and attack him from the rear as the Pogo-area bear attacked Trainor, and as another bear in the Pogo-area attacked Cynthia Dusel Bacon not far away in the 1970s.
“The second time I sprayed him was at maybe two meters,” Foster said.
Upon being sprayed, the bear would quickly whirl and run away, a reaction not much different from that reported by others who’ve swatting black bear with sticks or thrown rocks at them in similar situations.
When the bear turned, Foster said, he’d stop spraying, recognizing shooting spray at a bear’s ass was a waste of spray he might need later.
“He constantly tried to circle me and get me from behind,” said the biologist, who was lucky to have had a GPS running that gave him a track back to his truck. He eventually decided that the best way out of the mess was to manuever the bear into a position where every time the man attacked the bear – and Foster said he repeatedly went at the bear screaming and hollering to make it clear he wasn’t going down easy – the man would be moving a little closer to his truck.
As this dance of predator and prey continued, Foster said, the bear spray became effective in that he could sometimes push the bear back by charging at it – a bold move – and bringing the can up as if he was going to spray.
At one point, Foster paused to take photos of the bear. It seems a little crazy now, he admitted, but “I wanted to document this in case he took me down.”
Asked what he thought would have happened if he hadn’t aggressively and repeatedly gone at the bear screaming, sometimes waving his arm and threatening it with that can of spray, Foster had a simple answer:
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation today. It was a flat-out predatory attack.”
A frustrated predator
Eventually, Foster said, he worked the bear out of an alder thicket and into a patch of woods.
“I was driving him toward my truck,” the biologist said. “He only once made a sound. He gave one woof. He was kind of frustrated.”
At one point in the woods, he and the bear played that peek-a-boo game around a tree. Foster said he could see then that one of the bear’s eyes was swollen shut, an apparent reaction to the powerful irritating powers of the pepper spray.
But despite this, the bear continued to press the attack.
As the bear and man ducked around trees in the woods, Foster sprayed the animal for the fourth time at a distance of only about four feet.
“He seemed to lose a little enthusiasm after that,” the biologist said, and after 45 minutes, “he kind of lost interest.”
That is common predatory behavior. Predators will test and test and test before deciding the prey is going to be too difficult to kill and then abandon the effort. Foster said he still feels lucky to be alive.
“It was pretty intense,” he said, but he lived.
Twice in Alaska in two days, others were not as lucky.
Correction: This story was corrected on June 23 to reflect the bear spray was in a hoslter on a waist band and not in a backpack.