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The cover of the state bear safety brochure. Information on bear safety can be found by clicking here.

A month to the day after 44-year-old Alaskan Michael Soltis was found to have been killed be a grizzly bear in a suburb just north of Alaska’s largest city, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has written its own story describing what it believed happened.

This is the way the media world has come to work these days. Government officials write the news when they decide they are ready to write the news; and supposed journalists rewrite what they’re fed. You can read the Fish and Game story in its entirety below.

The crux of it is this:

  • After four weeks of saying the agency couldn’t tell whether Soltis was the victim of what is classified as a “predatory bear attack,” the agency has 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.
  • And an attack that injured 51-year-old Paul Vasquez, one of many people searching for Hiland Road resident Soltis, took place within 10- to 20-yards of the cache. Grizzlies are notoriously defensive of caches.

After being mauled, Vasquez was saved by friends accompanying him on the search. Bear experts agree the best protection against grizzlies is to travel in groups, band together if confronted by a bear, and act aggressively to drive it off.

In one of the most famous and horrifying bear incidents in Alaska history, a group of hikers in what was then Glacier Bay National Monument (now Glacier Bay National Park), was able to hold off a grizzly that killed and largely consumed 25-year-old Alan Precup in 1976.

The bear later chased a separate group of three people out of their camp before threatening them at close range. They survived by shouting at the animal and bombarding it with rocks, as Larry Kanuit later wrote in “The Original Alaska Bear Tales.” 

The National Park Service eventually concluded the bear killed and ate Precup because it was hungry. Food stress has not been mentioned in the Soltis case, but the attack took place near South Fork Eagle River, a Chinook salmon stream short on Chinook salmon this year.

Several family groups of bears – sows with cubs – have been frequenting the area, likely in search of fish.  One group of three was killed by Fish and Game gunners a week ago. DNA tests revealed they were not the bears that killed Soltis.

But DNA has also disclosed that the bear that killed Soltis and attacked Vasquez was a female, and the agency has said it is ready to kill any other female bears reported to be showing any sign of aggression toward people in the Hiland Road area.

Bear experts agree the likelihood the same bear would kill another human is low. There is no precedent for a man-eating grizzly bear.

But those same experts also agree the risks and consequences of ignoring a bear that has shown signs of considering people prey are too high to ignore. Residents of the area and Chugach State Park hikers are being warned to remain alert and carry bear protection.

The situation is further complicated in this case by a 2016 study out of Alberta, Canada, suggesting sows that behave badly appear to pass such behaviors along to their young.

They reported almost two-thirds of the offspring of problem sows caused problems and suggested “social learning has the potential to perpetuate grizzly bear conflicts–highlighting the importance of preventing initial conflicts, but also removing problem individuals once conflicts start. Prompt removal (i.e. culling) of grizzly bears engaged in conflict behaviour might be an effective solution for reducing conflicts.”

They added that it was unlikely such action would be accepted in Alberta where grizzlies are a threatened species. And Fish and Game’s killing of three bears in Eagle River have drawn the objections of some here who see a history of grizzly persecution which has rendered the bears extinct in most Lower 48 states.

But Alaska has maintained a large and healthy grizzly population.

The range of the sow in question is likely to extend north into the Eagle River valley, which contains a popular hiking trail to Crow Pass, and south into the Ship Creek valley, which contains another popular hiking trail.

Below is the full, official, ADF&G news story as written by Ken Marsh, a former reporter and editor at the Anchorage Daily News:

(Eagle River) — Biologists have determined from DNA samples that the same brown bear was involved in a fatal attack and a non-fatal mauling in June near the end of Hiland Road. The fatal attack likely occurred a day or two prior to the non-fatal mauling, and both locations were within 10-20 yards of each other. It appears the non-fatal attack resulted as the bear defended the body which had been cached.

There were no witnesses to the fatal attack and it is not known if it began as a predatory attack or a surprise/defensive attack that changed into predatory behavior. Regardless, the fatal attack occurred in a residential area also popular for outdoor recreation, and which has had multiple recent reports of aggressive bear charges.

“The department reacts to bear attacks on people on a case-by-case basis,” said Division Director Bruce Dale. “In this case we’ve also consulted with experts outside Alaska who have extensive experience with bear attacks. The consensus is that bears exhibiting these behaviors could be a further danger to people.”

In response, department staff immediately set out live traps and has run them nearly continuously for the past month. During that time, only three black bears and no brown bears have been caught, and the black bears were released. In addition, on July 13 department staff killed a female brown bear and her two yearling cubs within one half mile of the attack sites. Prior to July 13, and after the fatal attack, the department received multiple reports of aggressive behavior by brown bears with young from the Hiland Road/South Fork Eagle River area. DNA analysis has determined that the female and the yearlings were not involved with either of the attacks. Reports of aggressive activity by brown bears in the area have since decreased.

“Unfortunately, that was not the bear we’ve been looking for,” said Area Wildlife Biologist Dave Battle. “However, protecting the public is our priority, and removal of those bears will not adversely affect the overall health of the population. Although we don’t have a population estimate, we believe brown bear are plentiful in the area.”

Biologists considered using tranquilizer darts to capture brown bears in the area, collect DNA samples, and fit the bears with GPS collars so that any bear found to be a match for the Hiland Road attacks could again be located and killed. While such an effort might spare bears not connected to the attacks, it was discounted as being too risky. Even if collared, it could take up to a week to identify the attacking bear through DNA analysis.

“Imagine if we handled and released a bear that’s already killed one person only to have it injure or kill someone else while we process DNA,” said Battle. “That’s an unacceptable public safety risk.”

Because the fatal attack occurred in a residential area also popular for outdoor recreation, and which has had multiple reports of aggressive bear encounters, the department will continue to monitor bear activity in the Hiland Road/South Fork Eagle River area and respond to any situation with appropriate action.

Most of Alaska is bear country and while attacks on humans are rare, they can occur almost anywhere in the state. For information on safety in bear country see www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.

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4 replies »

  1. Hopkins, not really off topic, as you bring up my point. Similarities between Slop Pail Jerry and some bear behavior. I guess what I am saying is, if we apply certain behaviors from humans to bears we might answer a few questions that have been in the news lately.

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  2. Official news, but off topic: What ever happened to Slop Pail Jerry? Is there any new information on this story, Craig?

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  3. I sometimes think we put way to much into all this. I was reading a story about a store owner today being robbed and shot. The teenage thug robbed the store, got the money, left and then decided to come back and kill the owner. Remimds me of some that live in the inner cities. Not all are criminals obviously but, when a thug kills or knocks out a person on the street, why do others walking by and not involved loot the victims pockets?
    So, my analogy is, that while not all inner city people are bad, one would be wise to use caution in those environments. Just like the bears, some will just rob you (trash your camp, raid your cooler or car, swat you, bluff charge, etc..) , some will “assault” you (defensive attack, nip, etc..), to outward “murder” (predation). Why did that teen thug who stole cash and leave feel the need to come back and kill the shop owner adding a murder charge? Like a worthless and lazy man, bears are opportunists and scavengers who search for an easy score. Like man, some are shy and nonconfrontational, and some truly are easily agitated and violent. Only difference I see is easy cash or an easy meal.

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