Only a year after a predatory black bear killed a 16-year-old runner on Bird Ridge, a 44-year-old hiker is reported to have been killed by a grizzly bear 20 miles to the north near Anchorage’s Eagle River, leaving many in Alaska’s urban core to worry and wonder why.
Always after a bear attack in Alaska, it is like this. Always there is that desire for an explanation that satisfies the human desire to believe “it couldn’t have been me because….”
After Patrick Cooper died last year, there were some who wanted to believe it was because he was slightly built or small for his age, or that maybe he had run from the bear – the worst thing to do in the case of a predatory black bear, the rarest of rare bears.
For long after a grizzly bear killed 77-year-old Marcie Trent and son-in-law Larry Waldron, 45 on the McHugh Creek Trail in 1995 just south of the city along Turnagain Arm, many consoled themselves that it happened because Trent, a well-known local runner, and Waldron were out on a “run,” as if a 77-year-old woman could run uphill fastest enough to increase the odds of startling a bear.
The reality in the case of Trent and Waldron was that they were simply unlucky. They stumbled on a grizzly on a moose kill, and the animal acted aggressively to defend its food. Poorly trained dogs are known to behave the same way.
A 2007 study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that most dog bites to children under age six involve dogs that feel a need to defend their food. The big difference between dogs and bears is that the former can’t easily kill a human, even a child.
Bears, on the other hand, are massively powerful animals that can easily kill people. Trent and Waldron met a bear in a situation that left it hardwired to attack with maximum aggression, and they died.
Their deaths had almost been forgotten before the next bear fatality occurred in that small corner of the Big Wild Life called the “Anchorage metropolitan area,” a place now home to more than half of the population of the 49th state.
Good luck, bad luck
Everyone got lucky for a couple of decades. There is no other explanation.
Fifteen-year-old Petra Davis could easily have died in 2008 after running into a bear during an Anchorage mountain bike race and being badly mauled. But Peter Basinger, who knew enough first aid to begin to stop her bleeding, found her minutes after the attack, and she had a cell phone with her.
Basinger called 911. Help arrived quickly, something unusual in Alaska. And Davis recovered. She’s been back on the bike a long time now, often riding in bear country, seemingly unaffected by her near-death encounter.
There were other attacks before and after Davis, but none as serious. Most were like the attack at Eagle River last year before the tragedy on the Bird Ridge Trail. Four hikers met a sow grizzly with cubs. She charged them. There were scared and apparently knocked down. There were no serious injuries.
Only days later, Cooper was killed, and now there are two dead in two years in the Anchorage area.
It was a tragedy that could have happened to many. Solis could have been any one of hundreds who daily go for an after work walk in the wild, half-million-acre Chugach State Park wilderness at Anchorage’s backdoor.
Solis’s body was found Wednesday after a man in a group of people searching for him since he went missing Monday was charged by a grizzly bear and bitten in the leg. Anchorage Police Department officers who went to look for the bear found the body of Solis, who “had died as a result of a bear attack,” according to an APD press release. “It appears the brown bear was protecting the body when it attacked a member of the search party.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have yet to confirm those details. The medical examiner has not determined the cause of Solis’s death, according to agency spokesman Ken Marsh, and not enough is known about the bear that attacked Solis to determine whether the bear was defending Solis’s body or another kill in the area or even cubs that no one happened to see.
Wildlife biologists are still investigating, Marsh messaged today, but the evidence so far points to Solis being the possible victim of a bear. Where that bear is remains a big unknown.
“We don’t have much specific information on the bear yet,” Marsh said. “Staff remained on scene well into the night in case the bear returned, but did not encounter the animal. The bear has not been seen since the searchers were attacked yesterday morning.”
Live traps have been set in the area in hopes of capturing the animal, but there are no guarantees. The bear that killed Trent and Waldrop was never found. It disappeared somewhere into the Chugach Mountains. There were no similar attacks in the surrounding area in the decade that followed.
The lack of attacks wasn’t because of a lack of bears. There are always reports of bears in the McHugh Creek area. There was a report of a bear on the McHugh Creek Trail confronting hikers just this week. One man thought that bear was defending a kill.
There was another bear, or possibly the same bear, spotted on iconic Flattop Mountian above Anchorage just the other day visibly stalking a moose cow with a calf in hopes of making a kill.
Bear sightings and encounters on the edges of Anchorage are now common. They’re not at all unusual in the Hillside subdivisions above Anchorage, either, or in the residential parts of Eagle River north of the city. Bears are sometimes even seen in the city itself.
As a result, a lot of Anchorage residents have come to take bear encounters somewhat for granted. Some like seeing the occasional bear walk through their yard. It is a sign that a bear population once suppressed by hunting has been returned to health even as Alaska’s largest urban area has grown.
There are now almost twice as many people living in the metropolitan area as in 1985.
There is a simple statistical reality as a result: More people plus more bears equals more chances for encounters. More chances for encounters equals more chances for something to go wrong.
When the worst happens, messaged Tom Smith, a Brigham Young University wildlife professor, “it’s always a shock to the system, unexpected, and unfortunate. But from a coldly statistical point of view, this (latest attack) fits within the ‘norm,’ which is, over the years, zero to two deaths per year due to bear attacks (in Alaska).”
Smith used to work as a bear biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He still owns a cabin on an island in Skilak Lake and spends a lot of his summer there. And he maintains a data base on Alaska bear attacks.
His data helped form the basis for newly published paper on Human–Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015. Smith’s co-author was Canadian biologist Stephen Herrero, famous in the world of bears for the book “Bear Attacks – Their Causes and Avoidance.”
Among the new paper’s findings was confirmation of the obvious, “a strong, positive correlation between the increase of human–bear conflicts and human population growth in Alaska.
“This suggests that the more people work and recreate in bear country, the more likely conflict will occur,” although the paper does note another researcher’s findings of an uptick of bear attacks in places where problem bears are captured and relocated.
Alaska generally doesn’t relocate bears. Newly elected Gov. Bill Walker demonstrated why in 2015 when he and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten decided to save a problem family of black bears on Government Hill in Anchorage.
Over the objections of state wildlife biologists, the bears were captured and flown to the Kenai Peninsula where they promptly moved upwind to the tiny community of Hope and began raiding camps for food. All but one were eventually killed because of the threat to human safety. The survivor apparently fled back to the wilderness.
What to do
The new paper on Alaska bear conflicts sheds little new light on what leads to bear attacks, but it did underline the few things known about what makes people more or less likely to be attacked and those things that improve the chances of survival if attacked.
“Human group size was a significant factor in bear conflicts,” the scientists noted. “The larger the group (two or greater persons), the less likely to be involved in a confrontation.
“Habitat visibility also contributed to conflict. The poorer the visibility the more likely bears were to engage with people, presumably because of an inability to detect them until very close.
“When involved, rescuers terminated maulings in 90.3 percent of cases, but were themselves mauled 9.7 percent of the time.”
All of these observations relate to the Solis case and largely to the Cooper case before it. Solis was hiking alone. Cooper, though he’d participated in a Bird Ridge foot race, was coming down the ridge and out of sight of other people when attacked.
Both Solis and Cooper were in brushy areas. Searchers in the Solis case were able to drive the bear away, although one of them was injured. Searchers in the Cooper case were not able to drive the bear off the young man’s body, but in part the situation was compounded by the fact the nearest people to the scene were alone or with other groups of kids.
For someone chaperoning a group of young people, the 1-in-10 chance someone is going to get mauled trying to save a mauling victim has to weigh heavy.
Experts on bears have been telling people to travel in groups in bear country for decades. Many, however, continue to hike alone comfortable with the statistical improbability of a bear attack.
In other words, statistically, if you spend the next 635 years hiking in the park every day you will likely be mauled, and that’s without correcting for winter when the bears hibernate.
Statics, however, provide little solace for the friends or family of someone killed by a bear, and they do little settle our fears about bears in the wake of a deadly attack.
We are immune to the dangers of motor vehicles because we live with them every day. We can easily dismiss the risk of driving to a trailhead – a far, far greater risk than being attacked by a bear – because motor vehicle accidents are a normal part of our world.
Bears, even for people living in areas bears frequent almost every day, are just far enough out of that world to cause fear.
On Wednesday night, Marsh was pondering what exactly to tell people in the wake of the latest deadly attack to try make them more comfortable. The obvious would be to tell them to never go into the woods alone, but such advice is unrealistic.
But there is this in the new report from Smith and Herrero:
- “Bear spray was highly effective in Alaska, with 98 percent of persons using spray avoiding any injury.
- “Firearms were effective 76 percent of the time when used as bear deterrents. (But) only skilled firearms users should rely primarily on firearms for bear protection.”
Cooper was not carrying bear spray or a gun. It is not known at this time if Solis was carrying either, but if he had bear spray with him and if he was killed by a bear he would be the first in Alaska to die while using spray.
Marsh seemed to be settling on that message. It only makes sense to carry a weapon, he said, be it spray or a gun.
Most people will probably never need to use a weapon against a bear, but it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
(Editor’s note: The author regularly hikes alone. He almost always carries bear spray or a firearm. He has been required to use a weapon against a bear. He shot a grizzly off his leg.)