Thirty-year-old, U.S. Army paratrooper Seth Michael Plant survived a tour of duty in the war zone that was Afghanistan only to die in the far north on Tuesday when he stepped on the wild, Alaska version of a landmine.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials said Staff Sgt. Plant was with another soldier training at Joint-Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER) when they stumbled upon the den of a sow grizzly with two tiny cubs.
The sow, apparently judging her cubs in danger, attacked the two men. Plant’s companion, who has not been identified, escaped with what are described as “minor injuries.” Plant was mortally wounded and died.
Female grizzly bears are often extremely aggressive in protecting their young.
In grizzly bear attacks involving adults for which the sex of the bear was known, 79 percent were females, well-known Canadian bear biologist Stephen Herrero and colleague Andrew Higgins reported after completing an analysis of almost 40 years of bear attacks in North America.
Nearly all of those bears were sows defending young.
In 62 percent of grizzly attacks, Herrero and Higgins added, the bears involved in attacks appeared to have been startled.
When surprised by people, grizzlies display a fight or flee response governed by a number of variables, primarily how close the perceived threat and how important whatever it is they want to protect, be that cubs or a food source.
The deadliest bear attack in Anchorage history took place in July 1995 when Marcie Trent, a locally famous senior runner, her son Larry Waldron and grandson Art Able encountered a grizzly guarding a moose it had killed near the McHugh Creek Trail about 15 miles east of the city center.
The bear attacked to defend its kill. Both Trent, 77, and Waldron, 45, died in that attack. Abel fled and survived.
Running from grizzly bears is not normally recommended, but in some cases it might be the best choice. None of the Trent group were carrying any form of bear protection. It was unusual to do so in the Anchorage area at the time.
CounterAssault, the first commercially marketed pepper spray for repelling bears, was still new to the market. A non-lethal bear deterrent, it and bear sprays manufactured by other companies have become widely available since.
The state now recommends pepper spray as a precaution for everyone when hiking in the wildlands surrounding the state’s largest city, though there are still debates about its effectiveness versus a firearm.
The best argument for spray is that you won’t kill or maim yourself if a canister is accidentally discharged. It will, however, leave a memory you won’t forget. The pepper burns like hell if you get it in your eyes or nose.
Plant and the soldier with him had no bear spray. Base personnel who arrived on the scene of the attack did.
When they were approached by the bear, they sprayed it and it fled, according to Fish and Game. It was then the den was discovered nearby and inside it were two cubs born over the course of the winter.
The area in which the Army was training at the time is described as “remote,” but it is more accessible than much of the wild, half-million-acre Chugach State Park that abuts the city’s eastern edge.
The Park, much of undeveloped JBER and the city’s Far North Bicennentail Park collectively form a giant refugium home to dozens of bears, both black and grizzly (or “browns bears” as Alaska often call them), that live on the edge of the city and regularly wander into and through it.
State officials say anyone venturing outside the city’s core should be bear aware. They offer advice on how to deal with bears here.
The best simple-advice is to travel in a group – bear attacks on groups of three or more people are exceedingly rare – and maintain situational awareness, ie. no listening to music on earbuds or yacking on your cell phone or engaging in any other distracting activities.
The best way to avoid a bear problem is to detect the bear at a distance and figure out how to alter your course to avoid it.
Bear biologists stress that most encounters between bears and people end peacefully.
Plant and his companion fell victim to the worst-case encounter, a startled grizzly that believed she needed to eliminate a threat to her young cubs. She was not, however, the first bear disturbed at a den sight to go on the attack.
There have been a number of Alaskans mauled by grizzlies that were startled near dens, and in 1998, a bear killed 40-year-old Audelio Luis Corte while he was at work on Kenai Peninsula about 50 miles southeast of Anchorage.
He was involved in one of the rare attacks on a group of people.
“The attack occurred while the victim and other members of a six-man crew were setting recording lines and sensors for a seismic exploration project,” an investigation conducted by the National Institute for Health and Occupational Safety (NIOSH) late reported. “The crew was walking down a flagged trail, unaware that a bear den was approximately 40 feet away.
“As they passed the den, the bear emerged and attacked the victim. A co-worker, walking behind the victim, climbed a nearby tree and yelled a warning to the other workers. After attacking the victim, the bear went to a tree that another crewmember had climbed, stood up to paw at the worker’s foot, and then walked away.
“After the bear left, co-workers radioed for medical assistance. A helicopter brought an emergency medical technician to the area. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.”
The investigation led to a NIOSH recommendation that “workers receive training prior to starting fieldwork to recognize bear den habitat and react appropriately to animal encounters,” and that companies “consider providing animal deterrents such as pepper spray or air horns and training in their proper use and storage to all personnel that perform duties in remote areas.”
The Army is now investigating the JBER attack while state wildlife biologists monitor the area to see if the bear returns.
“From everything we know so far, based on the scene investigation and information from other responding agencies, this appears to be a defensive attack by a female bear protecting her cubs,” regional wildlife supervisor Cyndi Wardlow said in a prepared statement.
“We are trying to learn everything we can about what happened to increase public safety around wildlife in Alaska.
“Hair collected during the initial investigation was consistent with a brown bear. DNA analysis of collected samples will be performed by the ADF&G Gene Conservation Lab in Anchorage, and samples from the attack will be analyzed and saved to determine if they match any materials collected in future research or management activities.
“Since the attack, efforts have continued to locate the bear. A bear that is considered a public safety threat or involved in a fatal attack may be killed by the Department. Game cameras placed by ADF&G during their investigation indicated that an adult bear had returned to the area after nightfall and left the den site accompanied by the cubs.
“At this time, the location of the bear involved in Tuesday’s attack is unknown.”