With a soldier dead at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) on the edge of Alaska’s largest city, the state’s first fatal bear attack of 2022 was making national news on Tuesday.
First reported by KTUU-TV in Anchorage, the story was quickly rocketing through the tubes with pretty much the same headline – “US Army Soldier Dies After Bear Attack in Alaska” – from California on the West Coast to Connecticut on the East and from Minnesota in the north to Florida in the south.
What exactly happened remains unclear.
JBER was reporting only that a “U.S. Army Alaska soldier died of injuries sustained in a bear attack today in a training area west of the Anchorage Regional Landfill.”
The soldier was not identified nor was the species of the bear. Both black and grizzly bears roam the greater than 64,000-acre of the base, most of it still wild land. The base has in the past been the scene of attacks by both species of bears.
Information for new arrivals at JBER warns that they “should be aware that Alaska is a wild land, and wildlife may wander into the city, especially the outer areas of the city, including moose and bear. Do not try to deal with these yourself; back off (do not run) and call 911 for emergencies.”
There have been no fatalities in recent years, but a young California woman running on the base was seriously mauled in 2014.
In a video interview with military officials 12 days after that attack, Jessica Gamboa, wife of a soldier on the base and mother of a 4-year-old son, said she thought her life was over after the bear knocked her to the ground, picked her up by her backside, carried her across the road, dropped her to the ground, and worked her over twice more before finally leaving her broken and bleeding.
“I paused then for a few minutes … maybe two, laying there, and telling myself, ‘I think pretty much this is how I’m going to die,” she said, but the bear, a sow grizzly with cubs, then left her.
Such behavior is not unusual. Sow grizzlies are often aggressively protective of their young, but most people who have played dead after being attacked by such bears have survived. The belief is that the sows go back to their cubs after deciding that the threat to their young has been neutralized.
That is not, however, always the case.
The death of 44-year-old Michael Soltis was an eye-opener for many in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area, home to more than half of Alaska’s population, who had long believed that all attacks by grizzly sows could be survived by the victim of the attack playing dead and waiting for the bear to wander off with her cubs.
Grizzlies versus blacks
Grizzly bears are the deadliest bears in the 49th state, but black bears have proven themselves capable of killing humans as well. The year 2017 was a particularly bad one for humans and black bears.
Only days after a black bear killed a 16-year-old runner along the Bird Ridge Trail, just southeast of the city along the busy Seward Highway, an Anchorage woman working near the Pogo Mine in Central Alaska was killed by another black bear.
The latter attack was characteristic; the former not.
“…Black bears, especially those found in rural and remote areas, will
on rare occasions attempt to prey, or will prey, on people,” noted Canadian bear biologist Stephen Herrero and colleague d Susan Fleck concluded in 2009 after studying decades of bear attack data.
The JBER attack happened in regularly used Training Area 412 where both U.S. Army and Marine soldiers train on assault tactics. They do not normally carry bear spray for protection in such training, and live ammunition in rifles is prohibited for safety reasons.