Second bear victim

Austin Pfieffer/Facebook


This story is an edited version of the original. It was updated on Sept. 25, 2020 to reflect corrected information about what bear attack victim Austin Pfieiffer was doing at the time of the attack. 

An avid hunter and trapper on a dream trip to Alaska has become the second person killed by a grizzly bear in the 49th state this year.

National Park Service officials say 22-year-old Austin Pfeiffer from Bellville, Ohio, was attacked by the animal while packing moose meat from a kill site to a camp in an extremely remote corner of Central Alaska only about 25 miles west of the Canadian border.

His hometown area newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, reported Pfeiffer was to celebrate his 23rd birthday on Tuesday.

Until he was attacked, his Alaska birthday adventure in the Chisana River drainage was proving a huge success. He and a hunting buddy killed a moose late on Saturday, dressed it out and returned to camp for the night knowing that the hunt was over and the work about to begin.

A big bull moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds and the average bull yields about 600 pounds of meat, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists. 

Hunters in wilderness areas such as that visited by Pfeiffer and his unidentified partner have to haul that meat on their backs to a favorable location for a small plane from a local air taxi to land and pick them up.

Park Service spokesman Peter Christian said Thursday the moose kill was about a half mile from where Pfeiffer and his friend were camped in the preserve portion of the seldom-visited, 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest nature reserve in the country.

Hunting Alaska’s parks

When the park was created by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, 4.9 million acres were designated as preserve to allow hunting to continue in areas where it was traditionally established.

The Wrangell-St. Elias preserve is one among several preserves in Alaska where the Park Service, an agency primarily engaged in managing tourists, also manages hunting.

How familiar Pfeiffer and his partner were with bear dangers in wild Alaska is unknown, but the scent of a dead big game animal – be it a moose, caribou, deer or Dall sheep – can attract bears from miles around.

Scientists studying grizzlies in and around Grand Teton National Park in the U.S. West calculated the animals can smell a carcass from at least four miles away.

It is not unusual for kill sites to attract bears in Alaska, and experienced Alaska hunters are well aware of the danger this presents. How aware Pfeiffer and his companion were is unknown.

Janice Maslen, a concessions management specialist for Wrangell-St. Elias who conferred with rangers who visited the scene, said that they saw indications the bear tried to cache part of the moose, but they could not tell when that happened.

“We do not know when that occurred, before or after the attack,” she emailed. “If before, we don’t know whether it would have been significant enough for the hunters to notice.”

Grizzly bears classically try to cover their food with brush, dirt and other material to protect it from scavengers. Whether or not this bear had found the carcass overnight and started trying to cache it, the bear was not on the carcass when the two hunters arrived at it the morning after they shot the animal.

They started the time-consuming process of butchering the animal and preparing to haul it back to camp. Pfeiffer’s partner left the site with the first load of meat, and what happened next is unknown.

“Pfeiffer was found at the harvest site,” Maslen said. “He did not have a pack on at the time his body was discovered by his hunting partner or when the NPS recovered his body.  The pair were in the process of loading game bags and transporting them back to camp.”

Pfieiffer had his rifle with him, but it was apparently not within reach when the bear attacked.

Hunters independently ferrying loads of meat to camp in this sort of situation is not unusual. Bear attacks on hunters packing or cutting meat are extremely rare, and deadly bear attacks of any sort are rare.

No one was killed by a bear in Alaska last year.

After studying 135 years of human-bear encounters in Alaska from 1880 to 2015, researchers Tom Smith, a Brigham Young University professor,  and noted Canadian bear expert Stephen Herrero, counted only 62 deaths.

They also noted that most of the people attacked by bears over those 135 years survived. Sometimes all that separates the dead from the living is luck.

Nothing wrong

“These hunters didn’t do anything wrong in my opinion,” said Christian, a veteran Alaska hunter himself and a one-time ranger in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. “There’s a lot of different ways Alaska tries to kill you.”

Only a handful of other hunters have ever reported being attacked while packing meat or butchering game. But many Alaska hunters have reported bears approaching human big-game kills or sometimes even following hunters packing meat.

And only two years ago, a 37-year-old Wyoming guide was killed by a grizzly that attacked while he and a client were butchering an elk. The guide was armed with both a handgun and pepper spray, but the gun was not in reach and the bear-repelling pepper spray did not save him. 

How close the bear got before Pfeiffer spotted it will never be known. The vegetation in the area of attack was described by the Park Service as “dense.” It is possible the bear was on Pfeiffer almost as soon as he spotted it.

The Park Service said Pfeiffer’s companion was returning from their campsite to the site of the moose kill to get another load of meat when he encountered the bear and was charged. He “got within 50 yards or so of the kill site and was charged by a bear.  He shot in the direction of the bear several times, the bear got within 20 feet, appeared to flinch and then it veered and ran off,” Maslen reported.

Pfeiffer’s partner continued on to the kill site and found Pfeiffer deceased.  The bear was not seen again.  Rangers reported no indications it had been hit by the gunfire. After finding Pfeiffer dead, his partner returned to camp to call the air taxi that had flown the men into the area. The air taxi notified the Park Service and Alaska Wildlife Troopers of the attack, and they later flew to the scene.

“…The victim’s hunting partner was safely evacuated from the area,” the agency reported in a media statement today. “The following day, the National Park Service coordinated with Alaska Wildlife Troopers to recover the victim’s body, which was transported to the Alaska State Medical Examiner’s office in Anchorage.

“Park rangers found no evidence that the bear remains in the area, and no other park visitors are known to be in the immediate vicinity of the incident location. The site is extremely remote, but park rangers will continue to monitor the area for bear activity. All meat from the moose was salvaged as required by state of Alaska hunting regulations.”

The area is unlikely to see any other visitors before the snow begins to fall there in just a matter of weeks.

Park Service data records fewer than 75,000 people visited the entire park last year, and nearly all of that visitation took place along the Nabesna Road, which probes 42 miles into the north edge of the park, and the McCarthy Road, which penetrates about 60 miles into the southside of the park. 

Both roads are considered primitive by Lower 48 standards. The Nabesna Road ends in a parking area just past the Devil’s Mountain Lodge. The McCarthy Road terminates just short of the community of the same name, which is home to fewer than 30 year-round residents although it swells to many times that size in summer.

Wrangell-St. Elias is in these regards unlike anything most Americans think of when national parks are mentioned. More people visit Yellowstone National Park in three days in the average July than visit Wrangell-St. Elias in a year, according to Park Service numbers.

Almost 70 percent of the park and preserve was designated a part of the nation’s wilderness preservation system at creation, and the wilderness area truly remains a wild, wild place where Alaska has a lot of ways of killing people.

Pfeiffer is the first person to have been reported killed by a bear in the park since 1980, but there have been other attacks and other fatalities are possible. Several people have gone missing in the park never to be found.

Though bears are not known to prey on people as tigers and lions do, predatory attacks have happened. The first hunter to be killed by a bear in Alaska this year might have been the victim of such an attack.

Preseason hunting efforts

Forty-six-year-old Daniel Schilling was working on clearing a trail back into hunting country on the Kenai Peninsula in July when he was attacked and killed by a grizzly.

Schilling was alone at the time and the case is a confusing one in that DNA evidence later linked both a grizzly bear and a black bear to Schilling’s body. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials believe the grizzly bear killed him and the black bear then fed on his carcass, but it remains possible the grizzly preyed on him as well.

Evidence found at the scene of that attack indicated Schilling tried to defend himself with bear spray. An empty canister was found about 15 feet from his body, and state wildlife biologists who arrive on the scene to investigate his death said they could smell the pepper still in the air.

A friend of Schilling has said he was carrying a handgun as well, but that report has not been officially confirmed. If the gun was in his backpack, it would have been of no use. If it was holstered, it would appear he never got to use it before the bear killed him.

Schilling, like Pfieffer, was in dense vegetation when attacked, and in such situations, there is not much time between when a bear is seen and when it is on you.

A hiker who had his boot ripped off by a bear in Wrangell-St. Elias in 2013 told park officials that everything happened so fast neither a gun nor spray would have been of any use. 

Schilling was in a far less remote area than Pfieffer, but it is an area full of bears. The primitive trail where he was at work was only about 25 air miles southeast of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and only a couple miles off a paved road that connects the community of Hope to the Seward Highway.

But the Kenai Peninsula, like most of Alaska, has a healthy population of both grizzly and black bears, and healthy populations of bears entail certain risks for people.

The attack on Schilling was unusual. No one knows how Schilling and the bear might have met. The attack on Pfeiffer is more easily explained. No matter how rare attacks on hunters packing meat, these are the kinds of attacks about which many experienced Alaska hunters worry.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story said Pfeiffer was attacked while packing meat back to the hunters’ camp.






17 replies »

  1. Steve o, I respect your opinion. Also im not surprised you are shocked. Perhaps you are shocked because you misunderstood my stance . I didn’t say i agree with the the law requirement for guides. Though i do think it’s common sense. As to my personal stance i say live and let live . No guide required. Free bear and fish food plant fertilizer. Problem is thats not common sense. Costly for state . Disfunctional for Alaska reputation. So having guides makes legal and liability sense . There should probably be a guide until a competency test can be passed. What ever common sense requirement is met . Residency as you said is not a common sense requirement as prooves little. Though is a suggestion of knowledge gain . So Its posssible though unlikely you are right about “employment” though more likely you are misunderstanding a well meaning disfunctional law / guide / hunter residency requirement. If you took the guide examination and met requirements to become a registered guide you would see the questions are based around following state laws , hunting safety , wilderness and health of clients and animal/ biology and judging animals. Very specific items to keep a client safe happy and successful and out of harms way. Very little is based around how do you keep alaskans employed . Because interestingly out of state guides are allowed to have alaska guide licenses . Proof of Experience hunting in Alaska and testing requirements must be met though. As to wrong place wrong time that’s debatable. When you leave a bloody scent trail the bear will find you within reason regardless of time and place. Just ask a moose calf . So you are possibly incorrect tgere as well . Though i like your logic . You make an impressive effort to stay within reasonable line of thoughts. Thanks! Have a good day .

  2. There sure are a lot of “experts” commenting now days. Seems like what ever Medred publishes there are several who regularly post comments that give their expert opinions and often state “facts” in support. It’s getting more and more difficult to figure out which facts are accurate and which opinions are valid from those that are nonsense. But the argument over whether the term “steep” is the same as “large” Is an example of worthwhile discussion. I encourage Medred to thoroughly research the subject and publish an article that lays to rest this debate.

    • Good Idea Alaska first . Just to clarify i dont think steep and large are the same at all . I think Large could be used as a descriptor of steep in certain circumstances and im not denying there could be even better descriptors. Thanks.

      • Pirate, surely you did not take my post about the terms large and steep seriously. It was supposed to show how silly and irrelevant such a discussion is. And my suggestion that Medred should weigh in was a JOKE! Come on Man!

  3. “The learning curve is large as this dead man is evidence of”

    Hey DPR,
    Do you know what a ‘learning curve’ is? Do you understand the difference between a “large” learning curve and a “steep” learning curve? Do you know the difference between an x axis and a y axis? I’m guessing you’re a bit unclear on all of these topics. But for some reason you think your ignorance is as valid as true knowledge. You know, the scientific kind. Why is that?

    • Dear Mr Snow , the real question is do you know the definition of “ Large”? It applies acceptablly to a very steep learning curve. Per on line definition- Large = of more than average size quality or degree . Exceeding that which is common to a kind or class – Big – Great ect . Therefore the word could be used to describe a very steep learning curve as its more than average to its kind steeper in degree to its kind or exceeds that which is common to its kind . If you die during a venture that a goal usually is survival then you were not up to the learning curve. Death could be evidence of a steep or large learning curve. very steep or large or however a person prefers to put it . Now if the man had been killed by a tiger you might argue that could be outside a standard learning curve as shouldn’t have been expected while hunting Alaskan moose . It would have been random . Though you could argue theres no reason a Siberian tiger couldn’t migrate so self protection in all forms could be within a learning curve. So yes I know what a steep learning curve is . Do you ? In practical terms beyond a desk ? As to my ignorance you refer to i plead guilty. I wait for your sage wisdom to enlighten me . I am more ignorant than most humans can comprehend. I know so little. There is so much to know and i am privy to but a fraction. You say i take my ignorance as true knowledge. There you made a mistake. Perhaps you have mistaken differences of opinion for what you consider scientific proof? Sir kelvin did the same thing in a famous scientific mistake. I suspect you are doing similar. That said feel free to enlighten me on my ignorance. Especially the scientific kind . Im waiting and frankly desire to learn.

  4. My condolences to the friends and family of this young man who died before he should have. It sounds like Austin died following his passion, that is more than most can say. I was moose hunting at the same time and know how easily this could have been my name in his place.

  5. Hey Bryan,
    This is a “shameful situation”? Do you know what the word shameful means? I don’t think you do. This is a sad situation because a young man was killed. Now go look up the word shameful.

  6. Craig’s article says Austin had one hunting partner, while another says he had 2 local hunting partners and that one of the hunters reportedly killed the grizzly after the attack – “One of the other hunters reportedly killed the grizzly after the attack”. Another article says the bear left the area – “Park rangers found no evidence that the bear remained in the area”.
    All written on the same day. Confusing yes.

  7. Leaving the dead moose out over night before skinning it and packing out the meat is what attracted the bear to the carcass.
    Wonder if the new regulations that allow out of state hunters to harvest moose without a guide had anything to do with this recent fatality?
    Would a guide have skinned the moose by headlamp and carried it out in the dark?
    Probably, since this is how I have worked in the past when harvesting moose.
    It seems like the prior rule that required an Alaskan guide for big game out of state hunters was a good idea since the learning curve in AK is rather large and the mistakes are often fatal.

    • Good points Steve. Certainly a possibility that that could have played a role, but I have let moose lay quartered to cool without problem. Of course, it is a crap shoot. But, did moose meat play a roll in this or was this a late season predatory attack?
      Was he attacked and left for dead or was he attacked and fed upon? Seems this would be a rare attack indeed with a 1,200lb dead moose nearby. But, bears are opportunists. Shameful situation. Hopefully the partner can provide some answers.

    • Steve,

      What new rule is that? Nonresidents have been allowed to harvest moose without a guide for…as long as I can remember. Guides are required for brown bear, sheep and goat. Seems like if the reports are to be believed this was a very rare instance where a bear attacked a hunter hauling meat in dense forest, in other words the guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time and stumbled across a bear while he had 100 pounds or more of meat strapped on his back. Moving around with 100 pounds of meat on your back isn’t exactly easy on flat ground in the best of conditions, let alone in dense forest with a bear in your face. Besides, the guide requirement has more to do with employment than it does with safety.

      • Steve o , not to rain on your parade but where do you get the information that the guide requirement has to do with employment and not at least partially safety? Have you ever hunted sheep goats or brownies on a regular basis? Like stine says the learning curve is large as this dead man is evidence of . ( mostly from the challenging terrain and remoteness) ( alaskans that are in the learning curve process die as well ) not to mention rescues are very expensive so a guide could be well worth it for many reasons beyond “ employment” . Better success rates , better safety and survival rates , fewer illegal or sub legal kills , fewer costs to states and associated agencies from expensive rescues just to mention a few . Also why on earth would you make the assumption he died because he was wrong place wrong time ? Unless you mean he shouldn’t have been in the park . I would argue sincerely its highly dangerous for inexperienced people to hunt without experienced people. Especially in Alaska. You appear to assume the bear would have attacked him regardless of the moose kill . Why ? Bears like to eat moose or any animal. Bears have good noses . They hunt they track they kill . Having blood scent trails and gut piles adds massively to the danger. Some bears even come running when they hear gunshots like its a dinner bell . Stumbled across a bear ? How dumb do you think tge bear was . ? Blood scent every where , noisy man going through brush . I think a lucky bear sniffed a dead moose and wanted some . Had to kill the creature who was carrying the bloody meat . The man was Basically spreading a bait trail from one end of tge region to another. Steve is right . A professional or wise man moves the the meat as far as he can away from the gut pile right after the kill unless he wants to donate back to nature or force a future confrontation with a bear over a gut pile . Even 2-300 yards at minimum. An even wiser man prefers not to pack meat alone, personally i like a companion to gaurd me while im butchering but at minimum keep a large rifle within arms reach . When im hiking or carrying meat in bear country my rifle has no sling and is in my hands at all time . Slings catch on brush and allow complacency. I watch my back trail best possible because ive had bears hunt me . They are far better hunters than most people think. They want meat and you are it . 🐻

      • DPR,

        I come about that information by way of experience, knowledge, the ability to read and observe, oh and simple common sense. A person does not need a guide for only three of the big game species in Alaska simply by stepping over the extremely low bar of residence. Live here a year and you don’t need a guide, have a second degree relative 19 years old or older and you don’t need a guide, hunt any other animal besides a sheep, goat, or brown bear and you don’t need a guide. The use of safety as a requirement for mandating the use of a guide for non-residents while hunting only three specific animals in Alaska is even more absurd than a mandate for a mask to prevent covid. Frankly I’m shocked, shocked I tell ya, that you would support such a mandate.

        As far as this man being at the wrong place at the wrong time, once again experience, knowledge, the ability to read and observe, oh and simple common sense tells us that is the case. Had he not been in the same place at the same time as the bear that killed him, he obviously wouldn’t have been killed by that bear when he was…hence wrong place, wrong time.

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