Commentary

Second guessings

A brown/grizzly bear killed in a residential area of Soldotna, a Kenai Peninsula community, in 2011/Soldotna Police Department photo

 

A state fisheries biologist who fell victim to an unusual bear attack near Hidden Creek on the east end of Skilak Lake in mid-June says he doesn’t want to talk about what happened because of fears of “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”

During a brief, Monday conversation, Kyle Shedd said that he would only discuss the attack with “Stephen Herrero.” A professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Calgary (Canada), Herrero is North America’s best-known authority on bear attacks.

He authored the popular book “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” in 1985. The book has been revised and updated since and is now in its third edition.

Shedd’s concerns about Monday-morning quarterbacking are legitimate enough. The human behaviors in almost every bear attack in the 49th state get second-guessed.

How Shedd thought Herrero was going to find him for an interview is, however, unclear given that Shedd asked co-workers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to hide his identity and the state agency complied.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety, however, produced his name in response to a public records request. The names of people who call for rescues in the state are a matter of public record, and Shedd and his wife, Rachel, were the subjects of a June 12, satellite call for help. 

A few details

Despite Shedd’s refusal to be interviewed, he did shed some light on some of the issues surrounding the attack during a telephone conversation largely devoted to complaints that bear attacks are sensationalized by the media and his stated belief that it was unfair to identify him.

He said his “friends” at the Anchorage Daily News had agreed to protect his “privacy.”

(Editor’s note: The editor of this website believes public records are public records. Journalists selectively deciding who warrants privacy is a very slippery slope with a bad tendency to end up treating those a publication favors differently from those a publication dislikes.)

With all of that said, Shedd did reveal some details on what has been described as a “see-through tent,” he and wife were sleeping in near the mouth of Hidden Creek when their midnight bear encounter began.

See-through tents are reportedly a “hot new trend.” But there are legitimate questions to be asked as whether bears can see them and what happens if they can’t.

A state wildlife biologist who investigated the attack on the Shedds said it came after they were woken by a noise outside their tent and sat up. The bear then charged.

Someone sitting up in an basically invisible tent could come as a surprise to a bear walking nearby, and bears generally do not like surprises, especially grizzly bear sows with cubs.

In a study of British Columbia bear attacks from 1960 to 1997, Herrero and colleague Andrew Higgins reported “the adult female cohort (of grizzlies) was responsible for 79 percent (22 of 28) of the incidents where the age and sex class of the bear were known.” 

The study added that “in 23 of 37 (62 percent) incidents involving grizzly bears, where the bear’s motivation could be inferred, the motivation was ‘startled’. In 76 percent (16 of 21) of these incidents where the bear’s motivation was ‘startled,’ the initial encounter distance was less than 50 meters,” approximately 150 feet.

A thin, nylon shield?

Tents do not offer bunker-like protection against bears, but the Herrero-Higgins study reported that only “eight percent of grizzly
bear-inflicted injuries (4 of 49) occurred while the person was in camp.”

Chuck Bartlebaugh at the Be Bear Aware Campaign argues that “a tent can be a psychological barrier to a bear.”

Still there have been tent campers killed and others mauled in Alaska, and earlier this month a bicyclist tent camping in Montana was pulled out of her tent by a grizzly and killed.

The latter incident, however, appears to have involved food. The Associated Press (AP) reported the bear had ventured into the tiny town of Ovando looking for food. It raided a chicken coop and visited a campground where 65-year-old Leah Davis Logan was camped with friends. 

After the bear wandered away from the campground, the cyclists “removed food from their tents, stored it and went back to sleep,” the AP reported.

It’s unclear whether that food is what attracted the bear into the campground, but the animal was clearly looking for food in the town. It was eventually killed after it returned to the chicken coop.

Food attractants do not appear to have been involved in the Hidden Creek attack that took place in an informal campground just up from the shore of Skilak Lake in an area regularly frequented by bears – both black and brown (grizzlies).

It is not known what species attacked the Shedds, but the attack is more consistent with the behavior of brown bears than black bears. The Herrero-Higgins study recorded no black bear attacks in camps.

How bears perceive see-through tents has not been studied, but the animals would appear unlikely to be psychologically discouraged by something hard to see. A see-through tent is close to sleeping without a tent, and Be Bear Aware specifically warns against that.

Shedd, however, said hat he wasn’t sleeping in a wholly see-through tent. He described it as a mesh tent with a partial, “umbrella-like” fly that covered a good part of the mesh, but did not extend to the ground.

He did say it was possible a bear could have seen into the tent.

How a bear would perceive sudden movement in a tent like this is impossible to know, but grizzly bears do not like surprises, and any sort of objects suddenly popping up from the forest floor would likely come as a surprise to a bear.

This bear, luckily for the Shedds, was not predatory. It attacked them and promptly left.

Though they suffered serious injuries, they were able to paddle kayaks across Skilak Lake to a Kenai National Refuge boat launch where other campers came to their aid.

Shedd was back at work on Monday.

He said he doesn’t blame the bear for what happened in the belief that “we were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Self-defense

The Shedds were reported to have with them a pressurized can of pepper spray invented to repel attacking bears, but they never got a chance to use it.

Shedd cut off the conversation before he could be asked about what happened with the spray, but both the Shedd attack and a subsequent attack a couple weeks later along the Kenai River not far from Hidden Lake illustrate an important point about weapons for defense against bears – whether they are spray or a firearm.

They must be at readily at hand if a bear attacks.  Montanan Jason Umbriaco, the man involved in the Kenai attack, was also reported to have spray, but never got a chance to use it. 

Campers in bear country would be well-advised to keep the canister easily within reach and give some thought as to what they would do if a bear showed up in the night. It might be advisable to grab the spray before sitting up, especially if in a see-through tent.

And hikers in areas thick with bear sign – the kind of area in which Umbriaco was hiking although he apparently did not recognize obvious bear scat – are best advised to carry the spray in hand or at least in some sort of easily accessed holster.

Anna ‘Marika’ Powers, a guide leading a group of tourists on a hike in Southeast Alaska in 2016, was seriously injured by a bear that attacked before she had time to get her spray out of a holster fastened to her backpack, shoulder strap.

She was luckily saved by an assistant guide who rushed to her aid and pepper sprayed the bear. The spray drove it off.

Kim Woodman who was attacked by a bear on the southside of Kachemak Bay that same year barely had time to draw a 10mm handgun from his pocket before a charging grizzly was on him.

His last shot was fired at such close range that Woodman, who was backing up and falling as he shot, believes his foot took one of the rounds  because he instinctively put it up at the last moment to fend off the bear.

An Alaska State Park ranger who went back to investigate the shooting found Woodman’s sunglasses two feet from the bear’s carcass.

“It all happened so fast,” Woodman said afterward.

That is usually the case, which it is why it is advisable to keep weapons handy and engage in some serious thought about what you would do if a bear shows up in order to train yourself to react in time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22 replies »

  1. seems we are in the age of: if it aint entertaining it will be used to rip someone a new one (Miranda anyone?) and even if it is (entertaining) it can and will be used as fodder for criticism. be it as it may I think the state employee, even if on his own time, owes something to the data base, perhaps a df&g form with standard questions about the attack, where’s the food if any, provocation if any, etc. in such a format there’d not be a necessity for identification. ONLY TRUTH… lol… like there is such a thing. PS: and I don’t mean to pile on here but this guy seems to have a bit of a guilty aura about this happening. hiding his ID, huh. if you work for the dept you better grow some thick skin or find another job. you gotta pay for that retirement somehow, buddy

  2. “The Herrero-Higgins study recorded no black bear attacks in camps.”
    Had to defend myself from black bears in camp twice in my lifetime.
    Once in the grand canyon of Yosemite during the middle of the night (our food was hanging in a tree near by and I am pretty sure this is what lured it in)…the black bear repeated bluff charged us while we tossed large rocks at it & made a campfire to finally push it away.
    Another time was out in the bush near Skwentna during the middle of the day at a lodge (another caretaker was lazy & left a bunch of garbage unburned at the end of the airstrip which lured the bear into camp).
    Take the “experts” words with a grain of salt as many authors have less experience in the wilderness than they claim.

    • Agree Steve, just reading your comment made me think of a black bear attack on boy scouts wo were camping when a black bear attacked a kid by dragging him by his skull out of his tent. I am going off memory here. It happened awhile ago. I am sure if I researched I could find more black bear attacks in camp.

      • Bear attacks and bears in camp are two different things. Having a black bear walk through camp searching for food isn’t note worthy. I grew up hunting, fishing, and camping on rivers in black bear country, frequently fishing with multiple bears all around, when they got too close we would wade out into the river to get away from them to hide our scent and provide as small a target as possible. I’ve had black bears stand on their hind quarters, stomp their feet while woofing, and bluff charge me…those aren’t attacks. I mostly hunt in brown bear territory now, with some hunting and fishing in mixed black and brown bear areas. I’m more comfortable with hunting and fishing in areas without black or brown bears, like fishing on a boat in the salt or hunting islands without bears. I’m more comfortable with black bears than brown bears, but I’m not really comfortable with either. Packing a rifle or pistol while packing 100 pounds of meat on your back isn’t comfortable, packing a spray can with 100 pounds of meat on your back isn’t comfortable but it weighs less than a rifle or pistol. Getting comfortable, or being completely clueless, in bear country leads to a lot of these attacks…and then there are the times you are just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

  3. Alaska has a strong culture of “fear of being perceived as a cheechako” (FOBPAAC). No one up here likes to admit they may have screwed up. Embarrassment? Ego? Lose your plane/truck/snow machine through thin ice? Set off a slide? Bear attack? You shouldn’t have to talk about it. It’s not fair, after all. But really, hindsight can offer some valuable lessons. I’d be curious to hear how they had their food stored. Hanging? BRFC? Sleeping with it? And as far as “wrong place, wrong time” that would be camping at the mouth of Hidden Creek from June-September. Sorry if that’s unfair MMQB…

    • Well, somebody gets it.

      For better or worse, second-guessing is one of the ways we learn things. The U.S. military makes a habit of it and calls it a post-operation “debrief.”

      We might all learn something if those involved in bear attacks were subject to a debrief. If there is something they did that it would probably not be a good idea for others to do, that is good to know.

      And if they made a mistake, so what? We all make mistakes.

      • In the industry I’m in we call it lessons learned and we use root cause analysis to gather information about the incident and process all the possible causes so we can figure out how to avoid or remove the actual causes that led to the incident, it is almost always a series of causes that compound and leads to the incident, not a singular point of failure. It’s a way to deep dive into the issue and understand it thoroughly so you can prevent it from happening again. Over the course of time a matrix can be developed wherein the biggest problems and the biggest causes stand out and can be shared with others to prevent problems before they happen, sharing that information with others grows the data and spreads the knowledge so others can avoid the pain.

        Government employees are public servants, or once upon a time they were. I can think of no better way to serve the public than sharing your experience with others to prevent someone else from suffering the same (or worse) painful experience that you did.

      • There was a way to bring forward the information without involving his name, you know,right to privacy.Doesnt matter if he was on state roles or not.Funny how some think that its ok to deny state or any other govt workers there privacy just because they were smart enough to fill the qualifications of whatever position they applied for.

      • by law, once you call the state for assistance and in the process request the use of public resources, your name is a public record.

        the state shouldn’t be making exceptions for public employees. i was mauled by a bear on the Kenai decades back. i was still in the ER in Kenai getting stitched up when called by a reporter from the ADN, and i’d self rescued.

        but i had reported shooting the bear off my foot in self-defense, as required by Alaska law, and that made the information public.

        frankly, i’d like to see a whole lot more bear attack information made public. the data and details on attacks is way too thin, my favorite being the “don’t run conclusion.” over the years i’ve talked to dozens, if not hundreds of people, who ran and nothing happened.

        i don’t suggest running from bears, but i would say there are indications that the dangers of running might not be as clearcut as we like to think. and there are situations in which running, say if you stumble on a bear on a kill when you’re unarmed, might be the sensible option among your choice of bad options.

      • Absolutely. You learn more from failure than success. But if you don’t share the story of those failures then the lesson is yours alone. And you’ve already learned it…

      • Pete snow , yet you have also earned it and no one else has . Its yours alone to share or not as you choose. Its your own story . Just because the state pays you for the labor you provide when working does not mean you waived your rights or gave your privacy away . Now if the state paid you in return as is done in eminent domain and required by the constitution then you must be paid market value for what is taken for public good. Thats the law we agreed to when our founders developed the constitution.

      • Very true, TL; DPR. It all comes down to what we choose to share with others and why. That’s about it at the end of the day, wouldn’t you say?

      • Dave Mc, you have no right to privacy as a public servant
        Or while in the public domain. Sorry.

    • Brian, isn’t that no right to privacy only in reference to work done for or with the government? Wouldn’t extending that to private life be unconstitutional and excessive intrusion? Just a thought

  4. Probably the two most famous grizzly bear attacks ever killed two young women in Glacier National Park on August 13, 1967, many miles from each other. Both were attacked in their tents.

    • Nobody is suggesting it doesn’t happen. It is, however, rare.

      The situation at Glacier was unique. The bear involved there was highly food condition. The National Park Service there was basically feeding bears. It basically taught them there was nothing to fear about humans: https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-fatal-grizzly-bear-attacks-wildlife-humans-20170805-story.html

      That attack also led to the wide and long-lasting idea that it was unsafe for women to be in bear country while menstruating. That’s why the Native inhabitants of Western America were all male. The female children were killed by bears shortly after their first period.

      I am, of course, joking. Misinformation has been with us for a long time.

  5. Craig, thanks for prompting a discussion on this subject. A reading of Herrero will encourage one to think ‘strategically’ regarding bear encounters. “Better to learn from the mistakes of others, than your own” (Otto von Bismark). There is a you tube video on the construction of a ‘bear fence’ that suggests he use of white poly tape and small lights on might act as a ‘pyschologically’ deterent to the bear if the bear can see the barrier. Note: 1) a guide friend said that if a moose quarter is stored behin an electric ‘ fence, that a ‘shock’ might not stop a bear focused on a meal; 2) a hunter friend said in the tent he ‘sleeps’ with his bear pistol in the ready position on his chest; 3) from personal experience, a person in a sleeping bag in a tent will lack mobility to react quickly without, IMO, some alert system.

  6. A state fisheries biologist who doesn’t want to educate – pitty… Guy sounds like a whack job and 4yo. curled up in the fetal position thumb in mouth(excuse the pun) – “he would only discuss the attack with “Stephen Herrero. Shedd cut off the conversation before he could be asked about what happened with the spray”.

      • Come on Jack.. Due to his position I hold him to a higher standard if you will on educating the public. Granted he is fisheries, but he knows the value of his recent experience to those that travel outdoors or camp in bear country. To be so secretive with such “valuable” or potentially life saving information is odd to say the least..My guess is he drank the Kool-Aid and trusted his life to a can of spray. I assume his colleagues subscribe to that same narrative and he needs to chose his words wisely, less he be shunned by “cancel culture”. Let’s just say I would do the opposite Jack and she’d as much light on the incident as possible in hopes of helping someone.

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