A long-buried state report is shedding new light on a 2017 bear attack that left a young, Anchorage woman dead in Central Alaska and another woman injured and traumatized.
The women were doing soil sampling work for the Pogo Mine in the Goodpaster River drainage about 40 miles northwest of Delta Junction in June of 2018 when the first of them, 38-year-old Ellen Trainor, was jumped from behind by what she thought was a grizzly.
“At approximately 10:30 hours, Ellen heard a rustling sound behind her and when she turned around, she saw what she believed to be a grizzly bear,” Alaska Wildlife Trooper Justin Rodgers wrote in an email to the agency’s media spokewsoman dated June 20, 2017. “Erin was approximately five meters (15 feet) or less in front of Ellen. Ellen was pushed to the ground face first and pounced on by the bear numerous times. She was wearing her pack and assumed a defensive position face down.”
That is the response recommended by experts when a grizzly bear is involved in a sudden attack.
“If you are attacked by a brown/grizzly bear, leave your pack on and play dead,” a National Park Service brochure says. “Lay ﬂat on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck. Spread your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over. Remain still until the bear leaves the area. Fighting back usually increases the intensity of such attacks.”
Believing she was being attacked by a grizzly, Trainor did exactly what she was trained to do.
What she did not know was that she and 27-year-old Erin Johnson were dealing not with a grizzly, but with a dangerous, nearly 300-pound, predatory, cinnamon-colored black bear.
“Cinnamon-colored black bears are…common in Alaska’s Interior,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. People inexperienced in distinguishing brown/grizzly bears from black bears often mistake the animals for grizzlies.
And a 276-pound, reddish-brown bear charging in a tension-filled situation could easily be mistaken by even many wilderness savvy Alaskans as a grizzly.
This one might well have killed Trainor if not for Johnson’s bravery.
A show of courage
After Trainor was knocked down, “Erin began yelling and the bear directed its attention to her,” Rodgers’ report continued. A copy of his email is contained in a lengthy and exhaustive report on the incident compiled by Fish and Game and dated Aug. 3, 2017.
Yelling at an attacking bear is what one does to try to get it off someone in a situation like this, and Johnson’s action worked. The bear left Trainor and charged the younger woman.
“Ellen did not witness what happened between Erin and the bear, but could hear Erin screaming,” Rodgers said. “Ellen stated that she did not hear the screaming for very long.”
Still down on the ground, Trainor tried to ease her pepper spray, a bear deterrent, and a radio out of her backpack without making any noise to again draw the bear.
“She was able to hear the bear in the area during this time,” Rodgers wrote. “Ellen was able to radio out for help at approximately 1040 hours,” only about 10 minutes after the attack had begun.
“Ellen stated the bear came back to where she was playing dead and charged at her two separate times getting very close to her, within a couple feet,” Rodgers continued. “She was able to deploy her bear spray each time
and believes to have been successful the second time, spraying the bear in the face. The bear did not return to her after that.”
Why the Rodgers memo was not made public at the time of the attack is unclear. Johnson died as the result of the bear attack, and it was widely reported afterward that Trainor’s pepper spray did not work.
State wildlife biologists have since concluded that it did work, “though necropsy results showed no bear spray residue on the bear.”
Bear attacks are complicated human-wildlife interactions. A whiff of the spray, instead of a full-on dousing, could deter a bear as could the fact that a person was emboldened enough by belief in the spray to lead a bear to sense danger in pushing an attack.
Black bears are neither as powerful nor as inherently aggressive as grizzlies and can be intimidated. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) teaches employees working in the field that “your best recourse is to act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear by yelling and waving your arms and if necessary, fight back using any object available.”
The bear spray, even if it didn’t contact the bear as Trainor believes, might have provided her the confidence necessary to repulse the animal.
Johnson, unfortunately, never got to use her spray.
“We do not know if having bear spray more accessible, such as on their belts, would have changed the outcome of this encounter,” Bruce Dale, the director of the state’s Division of Wildlife Conservation wrote in the report’s summary. “Ellen Trainer was taken by surprise as the bear knocked her down from behind. We do not know if Erin Johnson could have reacted quickly enough had her bear spray been on her belt instead of attached to the outside of her pack.”
Johnson suffered mortal injuries when bitten in the head and neck, the report said. Her wounds underline the importance of trying to protect that part of your body if attacked by a bear.
“The troopers reported to me that the victim had ‘fought to the last’ and had multiple bite wounds on her left arm and side indicating she had fought (back), ” state veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen wrote in the report. “There were also bite wounds on the head. They said it did not appear the
bear had consumed any of the victim….Drag marks on her thigh were consistent with the bear dragging her by the head down slope. Her back pack was not located. Only her cell phone was with her.”
The bear was found with Johnson’s body shortly after Trainor radioed for help.
Pogo security staff and a helicopter pilot working for Pogo reported that Trainor called in a report of the bear attack and said “pepper spray not working, send a weapon.”
The helicopter was on the scene quickly and “initially saw the bear dragging something when they first arrived,” Beckmen wrote in a June 21 summary of an investigation at the site. “They drove the bear off with the helicopter. They radioed the injured woman and directed her down slope to a clearing, avoiding the bear path and the remains and she was able to get
into the helicopter herself. They got the survivor away (not sure if they went all the way to Pogo) and dropped her off.
“The helicopter returned to the site with the security man and EMS (emergency medical staff) and the bear was again dragging the body down slope. Bob (I didn’t get the last name) shot the bear with a .338-caliber rifle. The initial shot caused it to drop the body and run upslope. It took two more shots before it stopped running.”
The helicopter then landed nearby and found Johnson dead. The carcass of the bear was located 50 to 75 yards away. A necropsy of the 6- to 8-year-old boar found it a healthy animal with some pieces of clothing, a lot of grass and sedge, and “cartilage/bone fragments that are consistent with a moose calf” in its intestinal tract.
Beckmen judged the animal’s body condition as average but with “very little to no subcutaneous fat but adequate visceral fat.” The animal was likely hungry but by no means near starvation.
Why it attacked will never be known.
The attack itself, coming from behind in heavy cover, is the worst fear of those who travel the wilds of Alaska.
The terrain in which the women were working was described as steep, and thick with alder and willow growing in what would be the open areas of a young, dense forest of spruce and birch less than 15 feet tall.
“It was difficult to see anything more than a few yards away,” Beckmen noted in her report.
“Based on Dr. Beckmen’s conversation with Ellen Trainer,” Dale later concluded, “the bear made no noise until right before it knocked her down from behind and it was biting at her pack, which was attached to her back.
“Necropsy results indicate the bear had not eaten meat in several days, therefore we can conclude that it was not defending a kill. As an adult male, it was also not defending cubs.
“Because the bear was quiet until the attack, approached the survivor from behind, drug the victim some distance, and was a large, healthy male, we believe the encounter was consistent with predatory behavior on the part of this black bear.”
The report suggested Trainor and Johnson might have had a better chance of fighting the animal off if they’d had their bear spray in readily accessible holsters, but Dale noted that even that might not have been enough.
The report also reveals that by August 2017 the agency had settled on a policy that defnied a “predatory bear” as a bear that “preyed
or attempted to prey on people. It further defines predatory bears as those which display the following behaviors: ‘searching, following or testing, attacking (capturing), killing, dragging a person, burying, and
feeding upon a person.'”
Yet when a resident of the South Fork Eagle River area just outside of Anchorage was killed by a grizzly bear in June of this year and his body buried by the animal, the agency refused for weeks to classify the attack as predatory.
It wasn’t until four weeks later that the state conceded that such an attack had taken place. Why the agency covered up the fact a predatory grizzly bear was roaming a subdivision near the state’s largest city has never been fully explained.
That bear, and her cubs, were never found. But widlife biologists said they have her genetic fingerprint and if she is encountered while bear research is underway in the Anchorage area next year she will be eliminated.