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.
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.