If you think you’re getting your news from the news in Alaska these days, think again.
Most of what we call “news” now comes from government bureaucrats, and they seem increasingly of the belief it is their job to decide what is and isn’t news.
Despite a strong, 49th state public information law, basically saying that in most cases what government officials know you are entitled to know, there are a lot of people in state government these days making what were called “news decisions” back when journalists covered the news instead of just rewrote media releases.
As Austin McDaniel, the very nice public information officer for the Alaska State Troopers explained it, we “use our discretion….”
The discretion this summer appears to have been extended to treating the victims of bear attacks like the victims of rape.
Save the bears?
Whether this is meant to somehow protect the victims or the bears is unclear, largely because no one can seem to explain the policy except maybe the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is of the opinion that information is no longer public; only reports are public.
This how Kari Winkel – Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang’s special projects assistant – describes that policy:
“ADF&G is an informational agency. We collect information and samples only when given freely. Then we provide the results of our research of this evidence as well as the evidence itself to AWT (Alaska Wildlife Troopers).
“Official reports to include the names of those involved are the purview of AWT and all original items collect (sic) by ADF&G are turned over to aid in the AWT investigation.”
The only problem there is that AWT – the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, the troopers that wear brown shirts instead of blue shirts in the 49th state but are otherwise the legal twins of the Alaska State Troopers – don’t really investigate bear attacks.
AST/AWT investigates human deaths to determine their cause. If they are determined to be homicides, the investigations continue. If they are found to be deaths from suicides, accidents or natural causes there is no investigation.
The agency does also sometimes make a cursory effort to determine if a public safety hazard exists because of the behavior of a bear or other wildlife. But when it comes to attempting to determine the hows and whys of a bear attack, they simply don’t do that.
Fish and Game investigates
This is why Fish and Game last year conducted the investigation into the death of 46-year-old Daniel Schilling, who was killed by a bear while working on a trail just across Turnagain Arm from Anchorage.
Whether the state agency is investigating the two bear attacks on the Kenai in the past several weeks – attacks which happened within a few miles of each other – is unknown, because whatever is going on is now merely information and the state agency does not share information.
It is possible Fish and Game managed to get DNA from bear saliva in the wounds of the injured people and determine whether the same bear was involved in both attacks, but again, the agency isn’t talking.
It is known that a dog was involved in the second of the two attacks. That was reported by AST in this way:
“Based on a preliminary investigation, an adult male was hiking on the Kenai River Trail with a dog when we encountered a sow brown bear and two cubs. The adult male’s dog chased the bear which caused the sow to charge the hiker. The hiker reported that he was bitten on the arm by the bear and he then entered the Kenai River. The bear followed him into the river and bit him once more on the shoulder. The bear then retreated from the area, and the hiker returned to his vehicle where he contacted emergency services. EMS transported the hiker to a Kenai Peninsula area hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries. The bear has not been located by law enforcement. The hiker did have bear spray but was unable to deploy it.”
McDaniel could not explain why the man was not named in the dispatch as has long been standard practice for the agency.
Only a month earlier the agency reported “Allen Dewitt Minish, age 61 of Chitina, was surveying alone near MP (milepost) 117 Richardson HWY, approximately a half mile off the roadway when he unknowingly walked up on an adult brown bear. The bear charged and attacked him causing puncture wounds and lacerations to his head. After the brief encounter, the bear left the area and there was no indication that the bear was harmed in the incident.”
Crossing paths with a grizzly and getting attacked in the wilds of Alaska is something that can happen to anyone. Becoming the victim of a bear attack because of a poorly trained dog is another matter.
Asking for trouble?
Noted Canadian bear authority Stephen Herrero, the author of “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance,” and colleague Hank Hristienko in 2104 published a short paper warning that loose dogs can be a danger in bear country.
“What the data does suggest is that in the vast majority of cases, it seemed as though the dog(s) had been running loose at the time of the attack and drew the bear to their owners,” they wrote. “It also appears that many of the bears weren’t focused on the dogs, but came right after the owner.”
The paper attracted considerable attention at the time and led to media warnings that people shouldn’t hike with their dogs off-leash in bear country although whether a dog is an asset or a liability really depends on the dog.
A properly trained dog can be an effective early warning system for detecting bears before they are noted by humans with weaker senses of smell and hearing. A badly trained dog, on the other hand, see “the hiker” in the trooper statement above.
Against this backdrop of warnings about dogs in bear country, getting mauled by the bear your dog brought back might be more than just embarrassing; it might lead some to question your judgment.
But is it the job of troopers to protect people from this sort of questioning? If so, they probably should stop reporting the names of people caught driving under the influence (DUI). Getting caught doing that is truly embarrassing.
Maybe the trooper dispatches should from now on report only that “the driver” was DUI. But then again, in the case of the bear-attracting dog, embarrassment doesn’t seem to have been a big concern.
Forty-nine-year-old Montanan Jason Umbriaco outed himself after the attack with a Facebook appeal asking for help in finding his year-old border collie, which ran away during the bear attack. The dog was found safe.
Umbriaco even agreed to an interview with the Anchorage newspaper, but where the bear spray mentioned by troopers was when Umbriaco was attacked remains unknown.
The interview Umbriaco gave to the Anchorage Daily News would indicate it wasn’t where it should have been – in his hand – when hiking in an area well-known to be full of bears.
The ADN story did not mention the spray, but did say Umbriaco “put his arms up in a defensive position” when the bear charged. This is not the sort of thing one would do if they had the spray in hand.
The story also described Umbriaco as “an experienced outdoorsman with plenty of backcountry experience” who “noticed scat (animal excrement) but didn’t realize it was bear scat.”
This is journalism today. But it’s better than nothing.
As to the attack that preceded that upon Umbriaco by only a couple weeks only a few miles away, little is known, and what is known is apparently wrong.
“Close to midnight, a bear charged them in their tent while they were sleeping,” KDLL radio in Soldotna reported on June 15 based on statements from witnesses who helped the people. “They had bear spray but the bear charged too quickly for them to use it.”
Officialdom largely refuses to talk about this attack, which happened near Skilak Lake just below the Kenai River canyon where Umbriaco was attacked. Both areas would be easily within the average, 195-square mile home range of a Kenai brown bear.
What little information that was pried out of a state biologist is that the couple were sleeping in a see-through tent when they heard a bear or bears nearby and sat up. They then saw a bear and were attacked.
At the time, they were camped near the mouth of Hidden Creek, an area popular with both bears and people. It is plausible that a highly protective sow grizzly wandering through the trees there in the dim light of the Alaska night might be startled by people suddenly popping up from nowhere, which is how people going from prone to sitting positions in a see-through tent would look to a bear.
It is also clear the attack was not predatory. Grizzly bears that want to kill people for food have shown they can do that pretty easily. Thankfully, they rarely decide to do so.
Your odds of running into a serial killer are greater than your odds of running into a predatory bear, but it doesn’t take a predatory one to kill you.
The wounds from any bear attack can prove fatal, which is why people like Herrero have tried to learn more about attacks in an effort to find out how to avoid them.
Is it possible the Hidden Lake bear would have kept going if the people had stayed still in their tent clinging to their bear spray or firearm and ready to fight back until the threat passed in the night?
It’s pretty much impossible to know without talking to them to find out how exactly that attack went down, and without knowing who the people are it is hard to find them for an interview.
Herrero and Hristienko in their short paper mentioned the problems they encountered in trying to make determinations on the merits of dogs in bear country because “media accounts of events can be incomplete.”
Worse yet, media accounts can be sometimes non-existent because authorities withhold public information for “discretion.”
Back in the old millennium, the members of the mainstream media used to regularly get their panties in a bunch about this behavior on the part of the ‘crats.
Journalists aggressively pushed government officials, and sometimes even went to court, to enforce the idea that public information should be public.
Now, however, what is left of the shrunken mainstream is so beholden to the daily flow of media statements that it seldom questions, let alone challenges, any authority out of fear the flow might be restricted.
And if that happened, what would they use for “news?”
Reporters might actually have to hit to the streets to talk to people again, and most of them simply don’t have the time for that. Not to mention that some of them might not like what they heard from the common folk.
when publishing the names of victims in press releases or daily dispatch posts, this might be the victims of a car crash, assault, or bear attack. If we are ever requested to release the names of anyone that we interact with, we will certainly do so, as long as it complies with state and federal law. Most of the time, we will publish the identity of a found search and rescue subject or bear attack victim that survives if there is significant media or public interest.