What killing a bruin has to do with getting things done for your state in the U.S. Senate is hard to say, but candidate Dr. Al Gross is campaigning as “Bear Doctor” in one campaign spot, and in another the claim is made “he killed a grizzly bear in self-defense after it snuck up on him.”
The problem is that there is no record Gross ever killed a bear, although he reportedly shot at one.
And that’s where this story gets interesting. But first for non-Alaskans, a little background.
There is nothing much more Alaska-manly than shooting a bear in self-defense. Gross’s ads, which have been swamping television in the 49th state, were a sizable one-up on the old tradition of Alaska candidates swinging a maul to mightily split wood.
Still, Gross’s claim to have killed a bear was little more than your standard election-season goofiness before Newsweek reported that “Republicans 4,200 miles away in Washington, D.C. really want to know” if the bear story is true.
“So badly (do they want to know), in fact, that the GOP opposition research and communications firm America Rising, based in the DC-area, has sought to dig up dirt on Dr. Al Gross by making a public records request about the Independent Senate candidate’s campaign ad claim…,” reporter Ramsey Touchberry wrote.
How exactly this information arrived in Touchberry’s hands is not made clear. The story says Newsweek made a public records request to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which revealed the America Rising inquiry, but later says a photo of Gross with a dead bear and “a copy of the decades-old incident report from the Alaska Department of Public Safety” was provided Newsweek “by the Gross campaign.”
The story doesn’t say which came first, but it does conclude from the information provided by the Gross campaign that the candidate “did indeed once kill a grizzly in self-defense.”
Only that’s not what the information shows. An incident report from Public Safety at the time says “Jeffrey Jones and Dr. Alan Gross contacted FWP (Fish and Wildlife Protection) ref. they shot a sow bear (DLP)….Incident location: Sweetheart Flats.”
DLP is an abbreviation for “defense of life and property.” Anyone in Alaska is legally entitled to kill a bear in self-defense.
After a DLP killing, the shooter is required to salvage the hide and skull and deliver them to the state. A “Brown Bear Sealing Certificate” also needs to be filed identifying who killed the bear, and a DLP report completed to detail what happened to justify the shooting.
The brown bear sealing report in this case contains only one name, and it’s not Gross. It’s Jeffrey C. Jones who claims to be the one who killed the bear on the tidal flats at the head of Gilbert Bay near Sweetheart Creek south of Juneau.
This is a locally popular area for hunting waterfowl not far from the Snettisham Power Plant that supplies electricity for the capital city. Jones’ DLP report states that duck hunting was what he and Gross were doing when he heard “a blood-curdling scream from my partner followed by ‘Bear!'”
According to the account, Jones turned to see the bear only 5 or 10 feet from Gross, which is dangerously close. It is also the distance at which anyone hunting waterfowl with a shotgun filled with birdshot would need to make the decision to shoot a bear.
At such close range, the shot doesn’t have a chance to spread. It comes out of the barrel of the shotgun much like a slug, and will punch a hole in a bear as Anchorage hunters Steve Thompson and Tim Baker discovered after a grizzly charged into their duck blind at the head of Turnagain Arm east of Anchorage in 2011.
To kill a bear
Baker’s shotgun was stuffed with shells filled with #4 steel shot. He started shooting at the bear at 15 feet and believes that was too soon. The first shot had no effect. The pellets had probably spread to the diameter of a dinner plate.
The bear surely felt them, but they did no serious damage. Baker kept shooting. His final two shots – with the shot string down to the size of a fist – did more damage, but they didn’t stop the bear either.
That’s when Thompson started shooting. The bear was then only feet away. The tight pattern of his steel shot punched three mortal wounds in the bear’s side and knocked the animal into a spin which gave Thompson time to reload and fire several more shots that finally put the bear down.
Jones’ hand-written account of what happened at Gilbert Bay provides few details on Gross’s involvement in the shooting there. It jumps from the bear five to 10 feet away from the doctor to “I then grabbed my rifle and we both stepped back into the pond – the bear then stood up on its hind legs, then lowered down to all fours and proceeded toward my partner – at that time I shot the bear as did my partner Alan Gross.
“I was approximately 35 or 40 feet from the bear when I shot it. I felt my partner’s life was in immediate danger.”
The report does not say how far Gross was from the bear when the shot was fired, or what Gross shot the bear with. But unless he, too, had grabbed a rifle, or was still within only a few feet of the animal and armed with a shotgun, he would not have been able to deliver a killing shot, which would explain the bear sealing certificate in which Jones claims to be the sole killer.
Jones could not be reached for comment.
The bear sealing certificate he filled out also contains an interesting note from then Fish and Wildlife Protection Trooper Ike Lorentz.
“Claws were not salvaged by hunter,” it says.
State laws clearly says that “you must give both the hide, with claws attached, and the skull to ADF&G. You must also notify your local ADF&G Wildlife Conservation office or Alaska Wildlife Troopers immediately.”
Lorentz has left state service and is living in Haines. He did not return phone calls.
It is normal practice when bears are skinned to leave the claws attached to the feet. The DLP hides are sold by the state at auction, and there is not much of a market for bear-skin rugs of clawless bears. The only reason to remove the claws would be for someone to keep them as souvenirs of the incident.
When Gross spokeswoman Julia Savel was this morning asked what happened to the claws, she said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Al.”
She promised to call back, but did not. A resident of New Jersey up until the Gross campaign began, it is possible she was unaware of state law regarding the claws of DLP bears. As more questions about this story arose during the day, subsequent calls were made to Savel.
They went to her voicemail, which was full and would not take messages. She did, however, issue a statement later in the day to the Alaska Landmine.
“Instead of doing anything to extend COVID relief, lower the costs of prescription drugs, or make healthcare affordable for Alaskans, Dan Sullivan instead is focusing on a 25-year-old hunting trip. Dan Sullivan is just admitting to Alaskans that he has no plan to deliver results for Alaskan families at a critical time for the state and country,” it said. “What a shame.
“Al killed the bear in self-defense, reported the incident, and the case was closed. Believe me, if Dan Sullivan came across that bear in 1995 he would have been back at his parents’ mansion in Ohio quicker than he could say ‘Department of Public Safety.'”
The missing claws remained unaddressed as do other questions, including what kind of gun Gross was shooting and how far he was from the bear when he shot – questions which could go a long way to explaining whether he had any role in the animal’s death or not.
Anything Sullivan would or would not have done in the same situation is pure speculation, which does require some objective context. Sullivan is a U.S. Marine Corps officer trained in the use of weapons for self-defense. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t flee to his parents’ mansion, but it would indicate that he has been trained not to do so.
That makes it impossible for anyone to know what he would have done.