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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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.