Almost three weeks have passed since a grizzly bear killed a hiker in the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River, and officials of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game still aren’t saying much about what it believes happened.
But the agency is gearing up to make another attempt at capturing and killing the bear or bears that on June 20 attacked and injured a searcher looking for 44-year-old Michael Soltis, who had been killed sometime earlier by a bear, Ken Marsh, spokesman for the Division of Wildlife Conservation reported Tuesday.
Whether the same bear was involved in both incidents is unclear, although the Anchorage Police Department linked the two at the time.
“It appears the brown (grizzly) bear was protecting the body when it attacked a member of the search party,” the APD reported.
Such behavior would be indicative of a predatory grizzly attack, but officials of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation have refused to say whether they believe the June 20 incident a predatory attack or not.
The state advice has not eased the concerns of nervous residents living in an area where Soltis thought it safe to go for a walk near his house only to be killed by a bear.
Hiland Road residents might find a little more comfort in the history of bear attacks than in the size of their home ranges. North American bears, unlike tigers and lions, have no record of becoming man-eaters.
The last time a grizzly killed someone in the greater Anchorage area, it was never seen again. That incident involved a large adult bear defending a moose kill along the McHugh Creek trail south of Anchorage in 1995. It attacked 77-year-old Marci Trent and her 45-year-old son, Larry Waldron.
Both were killed. A hunt was launched for the bear but it was never found. There were no more fatal grizzly attacks in the Anchorage area in the more than two decades that followed.
The bear would likely be in its 30s now, or already dead. But there is a possibility it is still alive. The oldest bear reported in the wild in Alaska was a female that made it to age 39.
What little new information Fish and Game has provided since Soltis died is that DNA tests have concluded that the bear that attacked and killed him was a female, and so, too, the bear that attacked the searcher looking for Soltis.
Whether they were the same female has yet to be determined, according to Marsh, but the agency hopes that “further DNA processing” will either confirm or reject a match.
It also remains unknown whether the bear that killed Soltis was alone or with cubs.
“We’ve…received recent visual reports of at least a couple of brown bear sows using the south fork of Eagle River,” Marsh messaged. “That info coupled with results of our 2008 brown bear study indicating sow brown bears tend to maintain relatively defined home ranges makes us confident that the bear(s) will continue to pass through the area periodically.
“With this information, we plan to re-set the live traps in an effort to capture and kill the bear or bears involved in the attacks.”
DNA tests will enable officials to tell if they have the right bear or bears. State biologist Sean Farley poineered the use of DNA from bite marks to ID bears after a spate of attacks, all non-fatal, in the Anchorage area in 2008.
Many of those incidents involved sows with cubs.
A new study of “Human–Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015” by Tom Smith from Brigham Young University and noted bear-attack researcher Stephen Herrero from Canada records that in cases where the sexes and ages of bears involved in attacks in Alaska are known, about 90 percent of the bears are sows with cubs.
Deaths in such attacks are, however, rare. Sows usually just want to disable a perceived threat and escape with their cubs.
But then all predatory attacks by grizzlies were long thought rare in Alaska. Then came a string of them starting with filmmaker Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003. Treadwell had spent years trying to befriend bears before being eaten by one that ventured into his camp.
Nine years later came predatory attacks by two grizzlies in separate parts of the state in a couple of mouths. First there was a death in Denali National Park and Preserve in Central Alaska where a grizzly killed and partially consumed a backpacking photographer, and then came another attack on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska where a grizzly sow with cubs killed a man and then cached his remains after he apparently went ashore to fix his boat.
Predatory attacks have been defined by the sorts of behaviors described above.
Herrero, the dean of bear attack investigators, and Andrew Higgins say predatory attacks display evidence of “a series of behaviors…searching, following or testing, attacking, attacking…killing, dragging a person, burying and feeding upon a person. To be classified as predation some related behaviors had to be reported.”
“For example,” they wrote in paper titled “Human injuries inflicted by bears in Alberta: 1960-98,” “a black bear that followed, killed, dragged, and partially consumed a person would be classified as predacious.”
Soltis was attacked by a bear and authorities have confirmed he was killed by a bear, but Fish and Game officials have refused to confirm or deny the police report of the bear defending a kill or whether evidence was found of the bear attempting to cache Soltis’s body or feed upon it.
Marsh referred questions on the subject to the state medical examiner, knowing the medical examiner is legally prohibited from talking about medical examinations.
Marsh sidestepped other questions about the attack by saying that “with no witnesses to the fatal attack, it’s difficult to determine definitively whether or not the attack was truly predatory, that a bear actually went out of its way to stalk and kill a human.”
Why the agency has tried to redefine what constitutes a predatory attack and why it has been so reluctant to offer an expert analysis of what it believes happened is unclear.
“As our biologists continue to assemble and analyze data gathered from the scene, a better picture may develop,” Marsh messaged more than a week ago. “For now, best to remember (and I know you’re aware of this) that ADFG is a data-driven agency. Confirmation can’t be based on speculation. We really need hard facts.”
But the hard facts here are pretty easily obtained. If the bear was defending a kill in the form of a tragically dead Soltis, as APD originally reported, the mauling meets the standard for predatory attack. And if not, it could simply be another of those rare – extremely rare and unpredictable – encounters between humans and bears that sometimes end badly.
With the Anchorage metropolitan area home to a healthy population of bears and more than half the state’s population, it’s inevitable human-bear encounters will happen. Wildlife experts suggest that if you live here, you should buy some bear spray, learn how to use it, and take it anywhere you might run into a bear, which is just about anywhere.