No one will ever know how Daniel Schilling met his demise in the Kenai Mountains above the long-abandoned mining community of Sunrise this summer, but many will long wonder given that two bears – one a grizzly, one a black – have now been linked to his death.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game investigators say DNA and other evidence found at the scene of the July 29 attack on the 46-year-old carpenter and experienced hunter indicates that Schilling was killed or mortally wounded by a grizzly (sometimes referred to in Alaska as a brown bear or brown/grizzly) and that a black bear later fed on his body.
“The initial site investigation resulted in collection of multiple brown bear hairs, scat and some tracks,” Cynthia Wardlow, the regional wildlife supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game e-mailed Tuesday. “There was no visible indications of a black bear at the attack site. Because of the majority of the samples at the scene and collected from Mr. Schilling’s clothing were from a brown bear, we believe it is most likely the one that contacted him first and killed him.”
DNA found on swabs taken from Schilling clothing was, however, linked directly to a black bear Fish and Game later killed in the area.
Such a deadly combination of events involving two bears appears unprecedented. Grizzlies and black bears do not generally get along well. The former have been known to prey on the latter, and thus black bears tend to give their bigger, stronger and faster cousins a wide berth.
“But is it possible something like that could happen in a rare situation?” asked John Hechtel, a retired state wildlife biologist and authority on bears. “I’d say yes.
“…I can think of a scenario where that could happen. There are really rare bear attack scenarios where the improbable does happen.”
Alaska, which boasts large and healthy populations of both grizzly and black bears, would be the sort of place where the improbable would be most likely to happen.
Wardlow said that an empty canister of bear spray was found about 15 feet from Schilling’s body.
The safety on the can had been removed, and it was empty. Investigators concluded Shilling had deployed it based on that and “the strong odor at the site and the reported sneezing by staff,” Wardlow e-mailed.
Everyone who has been exposed to the pepper spray says it is noxious and obvious. There is, however, no way of knowing in what volume it came out of the can.
Wardlow said she is checking on the brand of pepper spray Shilling was carrying. A company called UDAP, which manufacturers the spray sold in large volumes by the Costco stores in Anchorage, earlier this month warned that some cans sold their between March and Aug. 6 could be defective.
“UDAP Industries Inc. has received two complaints where the canister failed to comply when test fired,” the company said in a letter to some Costco customers.
It has recommended purchasers test fire their UDAP canisters before using them, but that is a somewhat controversial suggestion given there is already some dispute over how much spray the cans must contain to be effective.
The U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which is responsible for managing endangered and threatened grizzlies in the West, used to recommend only those cans capable of spraying for 6 seconds or longer, but backed off that standard in 2016.
With competing companies jockeying for market position and one threatening legal action over the arbitrary time standard, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., reported, the Committee decided it couldn’t defend the recommendation though some biologists and others argued for it.
Tim Rubbert, a bear researcher from Kalispell, Mont., told the newspaper it was his opinion that spray time matters. He has twice used spray to detour attacking bears.
“I stand by the original recommendations,” he said, “because I’ve had to use bear spray and I recognize how important spray time is.”
A 2018 study of bear attacks in Alaska from 1880 to 2015 found bear spray as effective as firearms for dealing with bears and safer.
“As of 2015, 75 instances of bear spray use were recorded (in Alaska) of which 70 (93.3 percent) were successful in altering bears’ aggressive behavior whereas five (6.7 percent) were not,” researchers Tom Smith and Stephen Herrero reported.
“However, of the 197 persons involved in those 75 encounters only four received slight injuries (2 percent) – all inflicted by grizzly bears.”
The study has been criticized for its small sample size, and since it was published a Wyoming hunting guide has been killed after using spray while rescuing a client, a wildlife biologist in the field studying grouse in Montana has been seriously bitten after using spray, and Schilling has died.
But reports of the success of spray continue to accumulate as well. A 71-year-old Kodiak runner believes spray saved his life when he was attacked by a Kodiak brown bear, the largest of the grizzlies, earlier this month.
Still, runner Don Zimmerman did suffer serious injuries.
Whether a firearm instead of spray would have made a difference in Schilling’s case will never be known.
At the time of the attack, he was reported to be at work on construction of a primitive trail from near Sunrise into the Kenai Mountains that rise to the west. Fish and Game described the country as “challenging terrain.”
The location was amazingly close to Alaska’s largest city and yet very far away.
Sunrise is only about 25 air miles southeast of Anchorage, but to get there requires a 90-mile drive around Turnagain Arm which takes one along the edge of the wild Chugach State Park and into the wild Chugach National Forest.
The only thing approaching a real community in the Sunrise area is Hope, population approximately 200. It has an airport where small planes can land, a couple restaurants, a bar and a few retail businesses largely dependent on summer tourism.
The community can fairly be considered “remote,” and Sunrise some 10 miles down the Hope Highway is only more so.
When brushing trails in this sort of country, a rifle or shotgun gets in the way and a handgun to be useful must be carried in a way that makes it immediately accessible. Plus, the user must be able to shoot it quickly and accurately.
A Fish and Game statement said the agency was unable to determine whether the initial attack on Schilling resulted because of a sudden surprise encounter with a defensive grizzly or from a predatory animal.
Wardlow said Schilling’s body was not buried by the grizzly. When grizzlies kill prey, they usually “cache” what they cannot immediately eat beneath a pile of dirt and brush.
The lack of a cache, according to authorities on bears, would tend to argue against a predatory attack, but it is possible a group of friends who went looking for Schilling after his dog came home alone drove the grizzly away from the man’s body.
Even predatory bears are intimidated by groups of people. It is a reminder of why one of the safest things to do in bear country is travel in a group.
People familiar with bear behavior say it is most likely that the black bear showed up sometime after the grizzly killed Schilling, possibly during the night after his friends found him dead and left the scene untouched for investigators.
“Schilling was located deceased late in the evening on July 29 and responders were not able to access the location again until first light the next day,” Wardlow e-mailed.
“From what we know about bear behavior, it is very unlikely that a brown bear and a black bear would be in the same location at the same time, but they may travel through the same areas. I don’t know how common it is for brown and black bears to visit the same kill site.”
Modern-day game cameras have documented that a lot of animals visit kill sites – bears of both species, wolves, coyotes, wolverines, foxes, scavenging birds and more.
And pepper spray providing a strong scent in the area might have attracted bears from some distance away. Although the spray, which irritates the eyes and noses of bears, repels the animals when it comes out of the can, spray spread across the ground is a documented bear attractant.
Studying bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and in the 1990s, Smith found about 60 percent of those observed attracted to an area sprayed with the pepper.
“I had not anticipated that red pepper spray residues would elicit vigorous scent rubbing and whole body rolling by bears,” he reported in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in 1998. “This study demonstrates that the bears I studied found considerable interest in red pepper spray residue.”
Prior to his spray experiment, Smith said he and members of his field crew spent more than 750 hours watching bears in the area he decided to spray and during that time failed to witness any bears “rubbing their heads on the ground, pawing and licking soils, or rolling on their backs as done in the presence of red pepper spray residues.”
“…The correct human analogy for the ways bear react to bear spray is this: I like a milkshake, but I don’t want it sprayed up my nose,” Ted Alvarez, another wildlife biologist with Alaska experience and a spray supporter, wrote in an article for Backpacker magazine in 2017.
A week after Schilling’s death – with DNA results in hand and then knowing both sow black and grizzly bears had been at the scene of his death – state wildlife biologists shot and killed a female grizzly and three female black bears.
All were adults, Wardlow said, and all appeared to be in good health.
While the DNA from one of the blacks matched that found in a swab of Schilling’s clothing, the DNA from the grizzly did not match that of the grizzly-bear hair collected at the scene.
The age of the bear linked to the attack has yet to be determined, but a tooth from the animal was removed and sent Outside for testing to make that determination.
The attack happened not far from Sixmile Creek, a salmon spawning stream, but far enough away that it would not have been likely to lure bears into the area where Schilling was killed.
“Our site investigation didn’t find anything that would have brought bears to the area,” Wardlow said. “No food cache, dead moose, or other attractants. An overflight of the area found two black bears several miles from the site on the day following the attack, and one brown bear five miles away on the second day.”
There could have been other bears in the area, she added. The animals are hard to spot from the air given the dense, jungle-like foliage that now covers most of the state below treeline.
Still, Wardlow added, that what investigators found “doesn’t seem to indicate an unusually high concentration (of bears) in that area.”
This was more the normal concentration. Alaska has significant populations of bears. On average, they now account for about one fatality a year. Schilling is the only one killed by a bear this year.
There were none last year, but two the year before.