Dangerous bear


A sow grizzly and cub spotted on the outskirts of Anchorage last year/Joe Connolly photo

UPDATE – Shortly after this story was written, after four weeks of dodging the question of whether an Anchorage-area man was killed by a predatory bear, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game finally revealed the remains of his body were found buried in a bear cache – a mound of dirt and debris a predatory bear piles up to protect what it views as food.

ORIGINAL STORY  – A sow grizzly that killed 44-year-old Eagle River resident Michael Soltis in the mountains just north of Alaska’s largest city in late June continues to roam the edge of the state’s wild Chugach State Park.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials today revealed the man-killing bear was not the sow in a family of three bears agency shooters gunned down Friday on a hillside above the site of the Soltis attack. 

Department officials have refused to say whether they believe Soltis was a attacked by a particularly aggressive or predatory bear, but they have been acting as if that is the case. They have said that any other female grizzlies spotted or trapped in the Hiland Road area will also be killed if possible.

DNA taken from Soltis’s fatal wounds and those of a 51-year-old Paul Vasquez, 51, who was mauled while looking for Soltis, earlier identified the bear as a sow grizzly. Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh revealed today that further DNA analysis has been able to confirm the same bear was involved in both those attacks.

Soltis’s remains were found not far from where the Vasquez was attacked. That attack was halted when the people searching with Vasquez managed to drive the bear off, the Alaska Star reported. 

Authorities on bears have long advised people to travel in groups to avoid or fend off bear attacks. There is safety in numbers. Attacks on groups of people are rare.

A recent study of Alaska attacks by bear researchers Stephen Herrerro and Tom Smith found not a single case of two or more people injured by a bear “while grouping together and standing their ground when faced with an aggressive bear.” Only when people broke and ran did bears sometimes give chase and grab someone from behind.

After studying 135 years of Alaska bear attacks, Herrero and Smith also came to the conclusion it is wise to carry some sort of protection against bears when in bear country.  Most of the state is bear country, including all of the outskirts of Anchorage and the Eagle River suburb just north of the state’s largest city.

Most of suburban Anchorage and Eagle River are near or abut the half-million acre Chugach Park which is something of a refuge for bears. Soltis lived in a subdivision above South Fork Eagle River, a known salmon stream regularly visited by grizzlies. He was hiking near the park when he was attacked and killed.

Many, possibly most, people hiking on the outskirts of Anchorage or Eagle River now tend to carry bear spray for protection. The spray is readily available in sporting goods stores and even at Costco in Anchorage. It is light to carry and requires little skill to use.

Predatory bears

While state officials have disclosed very little information about the Soltis attack, former state wildlife biologist John Hechtel, an authority on bears, was willing to offer some views on deadly bear behavior.

“It’s a little bit more complicated than people think,” he said, noting that bears – like people – tend to have differing personalities. Most are shy and flee from humans. Some can be aggressive, and a few might be predatory.

He questioned the oft-recommended idea of playing dead when attacked by a sow grizzly with cubs, and particularly warned against playing dead before being attacked. “Play dead” with grizzlies has become a potentially dangerous mantra.

“Playing dead will work if you’re being attacked by a mother grizzly defending her cubs,” says the website of the Get Bear Smart Society. But the National Park Service was forced to warn hikers against playing dead after a bear attack in Denali National Park and Preserve in 2016.

A 28-year-old hiker and friends confronted by a young grizzly along a park trail made the mistake of dropping to the ground and playing dead even though they were carrying bear spray. When they hit the ground, the curious bear approached, scratched the woman, and then bit her. At that point, her two friends jumped to their feet and started throwing rocks, which drove the animal off, according to park service officials.

Hechtel suggested the Denali situation might have grown worse if the people continued to play dead. Herrero has classified “predatory bear attacks” as those in which a bear attacks someone, kills them and then feeds on the body or buries (caches) it with plans to feed on it later.

Hechtel says bear behavior is more complicated and notes cases where bears clearly did not kill people but later fed on their bodies as carrion.

“I don’t consider those predatory,” he said.

Other incidents, he added, appeared to start out as defensive attacks in the bear’s mind – the kinds of attacks sows undertake to protect their young – only to become something else. The bear got a human down; there was a lot of blood; and “at some point, the bear switches over.

“Then the bear ends up feeding on someone,” Hechtel said.

Then, there are – in his view – two forms of true predatory attacks: the “opportunistic predatory attack” and the “deliberate predatory attack.”

In the first case, he said, “the person acts in a way that elicits the idea in the bear’s head that the human is potential prey. They play dead in the wrong context,” as at Denali, or they turn and run as a bear is directly approaching.

In the latter case, he said, the bear clearly stalks someone with the intent to attack. “The bear is looking at the person as prey,” Hechtel said.

Those are the rarest of rare bear attacks. And there are no recorded incidents of bears becoming man-eaters as is the case with both tigers and lions. But there clearly have been bears that in some circumstances pursued people as prey. That appeared to be the case in two highly unusual black bear attacks in the state last year.

Canadian biologist Rob Foster has described in detail another such encounter. He was stalked and pursued by a predatory black bear in Ontario in 2013. He escaped by spraying the animal repeatedly with bear spray as it pressed an attack for 45 minutes, during which sometimes charged the bear while screaming, waving his arms and threatening with the spray as if he planned to gas the animal again.

Asked in an interview last year what he thought would have happened if he hadn’t acted so aggressively, Foster had a simple answer:

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation today. It was a flat-out predatory attack.”

There is a lesson there.

“I think in most of these cases you have a time to prevent (an attack),” Hechtel said, especially if you are armed with some sort of weapon – such as bear spray – with which to defend yourself.

And the bear spray, he said, has a big value that seldom gets discussed. It makes people more confident around bears and thus far better prepared to face down any attack. That alone, he said, can forestall most attacks.


UPDATE – An early version of this story left out the name of searcher Paul Vasquez, the other man injured by the bear that killed Soltis.


21 replies »

  1. Side note: The man from the search party who was attacked and injured was identified by multiple outlets as Paul Vasquez, 51, of Anchorage.

    • Matt: thanks. i knew that. don’t know what happened. brain fart? imprinted on Matt Tunseth’s original story while pulling it up for the link? tired of ADF&G lack of transparency? who knows.

      but at the end of the day, my fault. and for that i thank you for the cloud editing. if you see anything else in any story, i always appreciate help from the cloud.

  2. What about the Black Bear attacking the 2 geologists
    last Summer; bear spray and fighting back ended with the one girl wounded, and the other killed and predated upon?

    • well, i’ve never seen a full report. still trying to pull that out of Fish and Game. but reportedly the young woman who saved herself did so with spray. what happened after that is less clear. they were separated in timber; and none of the stories at the time provided much detail because the authorities weren’t saying much.

  3. “Between 1800 and 1975, grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states decreased from estimates of more than 100,000 to less than 1,000. The grizzly was eliminated from much of the west by the late 1800’s. As mountainous areas were settled, development contributed to an increase in human-caused mortality. Livestock depredation control, habitat deterioration, commercial trapping, unregulated hunting and the perception that grizzlies threatened human life were leading causes of the animal’s decline.”

    • Steve, there is no threat of anything like that happening in AK-at least until the climate change gives us the temps. of say Arizona. A lot of bears were killed during early logging days, as nobody wanted them hanging around but our logging days have changed and even otherwise it’s just not possible to go about killing brown bears for the hell of it.

      • Bill,
        I value your opinion, but I must say AK is full of many “sourdoughs” that have no problem following the manta of “Shoot, Shovel and Shut up”…
        Self defense in the bush is quite understandable to me after the bears I have encountered, but the new mode of operation applied by F&G that allow out of state clients to bait brown bears into blinds with their hired guides has me wondering about the faith of our fury friend.
        Many areas have not had recent aerial surveys and I question the valid number of brown bears in the state.
        What this recent attack in Eagle River tells me is our state needs a concrete policy on how to respond to bear mauling.
        Should every bear in the park be exterminated until one carcass matches the DNA of the most recent victim?
        Or should we make an honest attempt to locate the trouble bear when the attack occurs and if we are unsuccessful, should we leave the rest of the bears alone?
        Vengeance on remaining brown bears will not bring back the dead engineer, but education of the community might save a victim from a future an unnecessary attack.
        Either way if the lower 48 went from 100k brown bears down to 1k…..Alaska with 30K or so brown bears is not immune to extinction (faced with decreased salmon stocks and loss of habitat due to places like Hiland Road)….especially now that Trump changed the rules for Endangered Species in the U.S.

      • Bill, can we give the whole “Global Warming” nonsense a rest? It is nothing but one big money generating, fabrocated lie. Look up el Nino and get familiar with it, because that is all you are witnessing and it doesn’t require over-regulation nor your tax dollars.

      • Steve, you do realize both NOAA and NASA have been caught lying and providing bogus temp data for years to substatiate a bogus claim of Global Warming?

      • Bryan,
        I will not argue what has caused the Polar Ice Cap to melt, but maybe this short video of the first “Sail Boat” crossing the NWP in September can show you what is going on in the Arctic?
        The family in this video visits villages along the way and even a few elder members of the native community speak of “Climate Change” affecting their lifestyles….suicide is up 25% in the Inuit Communities.

    • In the Territorial days, Governor Riggs saw and labeled bears as a public “menace” and publicly called for “extermination.” Also bears, he said were blunting “progress” because they ATE SALMONand slowed white settlement. There is some evidence that “getters” were strewn along some salmon streams including McNeil. For decades commercial Fishermen regularly shot bears and left them to rot. One said he killed 40.(See Frank Dufresne’s book from that era, No Room For Bears.” )
      It seems clear to me that the big change in Anchorage bear numbers is due to enhanced salmon runs on the drainages that meander through the city. In the 60’s and earlier, bears were not so common and salmon runs minimal, now that has changed. Seems obvious that if you provide ample food you will have more of whatever eats that food.
      There is always an up and down side to every action. Back in the 70’s Ak State Parks built a lovely trail along Troublesome Creek and promoted wildlife viewing and scenery. Both black and brown bears caught salmon in the creek and within two years or so, two people were severely injured when they came on a brown bear at close range. Really no surprise. The lesson: implications of any action should be considered beforehand.

      • nice summary, Tom.
        some of the Wildlife Division people now dealing with the Eagle River mess warned of this years back vis-a-vis Campbell Creek, which pulled bears into Bicentennial Park where we’ve had a variety of bear attacks.
        and, of course, Bird Creek – just downhill from the site of last year’s fatal bear attack – is plugged with salmon due to a stocking program. and the state was in the 1990s boosting Chinook runs in the South Fork Eagle River, near where this latest attack, and thus helping train bears to go there to look for salmon.
        i’m not sure when that stocking stopped, but you’re right: actions have consequences.

      • Craig,
        found an old Press article where they quoted you:
        “There’s a lot of things in life there’s no explanation for-let’s face it, people just do weird shit. They’re no different from bears; you can predict most of them most of the time but every now and then they just go and do weird shit, and you go, why the hell did she do that?”
        seems like the way it is with bears…”expect the unexpected”.

  4. Craig, correct me because I am going stricly off memory here, but there is more to the Denali/hikers incident then portrayed. For 2 weeks this particular bear took handouts from tourists on the Savage River trail, became habituated to humans, and approached them when the opportunity presented itself. I recall somebody throwing a backpack with candybars in it at the bear. Can’t remember if it was one of the 3 ladies or not. Anyhow, they did laydown too soon which is understandable and it raised the curiosity of the bear. I believe it was 3 petite Asian girls and I’d say the bears nip was more curious at the time, but who knows what might have transpired in time. But, I’d hardly call this one incident a predatory attack. Maybe for candy. Now, the guy from California for sure. Anyhow, I am going off memory so BEAR with me.

    • i wouldn’t call it a predatory attack either and didn’t. it was cited as a case of something that could start as a minor thing and evolve into a predatory attack. we had a similar situation a long time back with a hiker on the Eagle River/Crow Pass Trail:

      he ran into a black bear. it scampered up a tree. he played dead. bear climbed down and bit him in the nose. he screamed. the bear fled.

      who knows what would have happened if he’d decided the safest thing to do was stay silent.

  5. I personally think Fish and Game use these “mauling” attacks as an opportunity to kill more bears in the area of the attack.
    Last summer after the runner was killed on Bird Ridge, 4 bears were shot dead out of a helicopter before anyone knew if they were they were the “trouble” bears.
    Statements from Fish and Game like: “They have said that any other female grizzlies spotted or trapped in the Hiland Road area will also be killed if possible.” only further prove my point.
    The truth is Fish and Game Biologist suck in Alaska and operate with “knee jerk” reactions to whatever decision is at hand…
    Any young Biologists who try and do “sound science” are pushed out of the state way before any ripples can be caused by their insights.
    Sadly, Alaska is on the same path of many other western states in “da union”…
    Destroyed habitat to mining and gas operations, depleted resources from foreign countries and current increase production with a mono culture of hatchery salmon for the commercial ranching operation…
    I believe the last Brown bear in Colorado was killed in 1979 in Pagosa Springs and the last Brown bear in California was shot in the Sierras many years before that…
    When will the last Brown bear be shot in Alaska?
    The truth is each person recreating in the outdoors has a personal responsibility to protect themselves and their group.
    Asking the government to have biologists exterminate large amounts of bears so the “Yuppies” can continue to make stupid decisions when recreating in bear country is just stupid and a waste of our state spending.
    How many bears were killed this year in Eagle River already by biologists? A dozen or so I believe since June.

  6. The Nols group was large but they weren’t making enough noise compared to the noise of the stream they were hiking along. I think they missed that in the incident report. Groups also need to make enough noise based on the level of natural sounds be it a creek or the wind in brush or trees. Yes I really like backpacking with a minumum of three if possible.

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