Bear hunt resumes

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An Alaska grizzly and cubs on the Anchorage Hillside last year/Robert Schuman photo

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.

They have instead counseled worried residents of the Hiland Road area where the fatal attack took place not to worry because the bear could be far away by now. 

Grizzly bears in the Southcentral  part of the state do have large home ranges varying in size from about 150 square miles or more for females to about 360 square miles or more for males.

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.

Multiple bears?

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.

Identifiable behaviors

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.



5 replies »

  1. I have some data for you.
    12 guage shotgun remove
    Plug so you can load at least 6 rounds… a 7th in the chamber if you are careful.
    All the bears in the Anchorage bowel need to be hunted.
    I do not recall any such attacks in Anchorage in the 50’s and 60’s…..
    Does the ADFG have those numbers?
    The only mauling in those days was from dogs loose, running in packs… we shot them on sight.
    ADFG formed at Statehood in 1959?

  2. I still don’t understand why you would not just naturally assume to carry protection when out and about in areas like this. It should be automatic, nothing against the bears, but when you live and recreate with them you should know there’s a probability an encounter will probably take place.

    What I don’t understand is why on earth would you step out onto these trails without protection. Even if it’s just bear spray to teach bears we are nothing they want anything to do with. And if it is a predatory situation you at least have some chance in hell in the situation.

    To go out into the woods and act like it will never happen to you is just irresponsible. To leave attractants out is also irresponsible as well. If you don’t want to be responsible pack up and move closer in the city.

  3. I think bears in general are opportunistic and as we know, always looking for their next meal. 75% of their diet is plant based while the remaining 25% is meat based. Humans fall into that 25% obviously. We have seen numerous times in the past where a bear actually tracked/stalked a human or knew humans were in the area and specifically went for the “easiest” human. The reason bears haven’t evolved into putting humans in their regular diet is because once one attacks, it is hunted down and killed eliminating the continual human food cycle.
    Generally bears do not spend enough time around humans to determine their weaknesses as they do with other prey. When I had a large brown bore come to within 15 yards in Katmai, the only advatntage (besides a shotgun) I had was this bear didnt know what I was or what capabilities I brought to the fight. He snapped, he went cowboy on me, and he pee’d all over himself (Wish I could post a pic here). My point being, I think all bears can be predatory under the right circumstances. Eagle River has the right ingredients – bears, cover, and frequent human interaction (chickens, trash/food, hikers, campers, etc.), but, bears are also hunted enough to understand with humans comes death. In a nutshell if your number is up, it is up.

    • I mean why do they recommend we hike always in groups of 3 or more? To discourage a predatory response right?

  4. Funny how ADFG says they are now “data driven”. Can’t say anything or take action until forensic data backs them up. That was certainly not the case last year when a black bear killed the kid on Bird Ridge. ADFG used a helicopter to gun down 4 black bears. Seems they were “vengeance driven” last year. ADFG is hard to predict. A very random and knee-jerk policy runs ADFG. Has.always been that way.

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