Monday, August 27, 2012

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The review quiz for my ski patrol Mountain Travel & Rescue Course includes three questions with the theme of “Lions and Tiger and Bears, Oh My!” -- or, when animals attack:
  1. type of North American animal attack with the most emergency room visits;
  2. type of North American animal attack with the most human deaths; and,
  3. type of Northeastern U.S. animal attack with the most incidents of potentially highly adverse health effects.
Students are often prone to putting down bears for any or even all of these questions, even though the correct answers involve far less "impressive" animal species.

But from Alaska comes a grim reminder that bear attacks can be a real danger, with the first fatal mauling in the entire nearly century-long history of Denali National Park.  (Note that the victim took pictures of the bear during an eight-minute period at a distance of about 50 yards.)

Bear kills hiker in Denali National Park
by By Kris Capps/For the News-Miner
Aug 26, 2012
UPDATED at 9:50 p.m. with victim ID

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — A grizzly bear killed a solo backpacker inside Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday, the first fatal mauling recorded in the park’s 95-year history.

Alaska State Troopers killed the bear on Saturday and recovered the remains. The victim was identified as Richard White, 49, of San Diego. He had been in the backcountry for three nights when he was killed. He may have had some experience hiking in other parts of Alaska, but it is not known if he had previous experience at Denali, according to the National Park Service.

The remains and the bear were found at what appeared to be a historical grizzly cache site about three miles south of the Toklat Rest Stop, where the braided river narrows and becomes a dense brushy area. A second, smaller bear that was in the immediate area fled after the first bear was shot.

There are no other registered backpackers in the immediate area. An emergency closure is now in place, prohibiting all hiking and camping in Backcountry Unit 10 and adjacent areas, until further notice.

Although no park visitors were known to be in the vicinity, park staff contacted three groups in adjacent areas and flew them by helicopter to the Toklat River Rest Area.

Maureen McLaughlin with the National Park Service said date-stamped photos on the victim’s camera show a period of eight minutes during which the bear and the victim drew increasingly closer to each other. Photos show the bear initially partway in the brush.

It is not known whether the bear or the backpacker closed that gap from what looked like an initial 50 yards. Hikers are advised to keep at least a quarter mile away from bears.

A necropsy on the bear, performed Saturday night, and photos from the victim’s camera, confirmed that that particular bear killed White.

The attack was discovered Friday afternoon when three day-hikers, including an off-duty park employee, found an abandoned backpack in an open area along the Toklat River. They saw evidence of a violent struggle, including torn clothing and blood.

"They were out in a more open area, and did not see the body," McLaughlin said. "It wasn't the cache site, but it was the kill site. There had been an attack there."

The group immediately hiked back to the rest area to report it, at about 5:30 p.m. According to McLaughlin, the hikers recalled seeing a solo hiker, up in the distance, earlier in the day on Friday.

Park rangers launched a helicopter and airplane from park headquarters at 8 p.m. and found the scene at 8:35 p.m.

At least one grizzly bear was still at the site, although there have been reports of multiple bears in that area. Wildlife biologists estimate that roughly 12 grizzlies have been living in the vicinity of the kill site this summer.

The bears moved away when the helicopter approached and landed. Two rangers on board got out and confirmed the location of the victim’s remains.

But a bear then returned to the cache site while rangers were investigating the scene, forcing the rangers to retreat to the gravel bar. The bear began to circle around them. According to the park service, rangers fired two rifle shots. The bear was not hit and the rangers were then able to leave by helicopter as darkness settled in.

Initial evidence shows that the attack occurred on the open gravel bar and that the bear then dragged the remains to a more secluded, brushy cache site.

Rangers returned on Saturday, with at least two Alaska State Troopers from the Cantwell/Healy area, including one who specializes in wildlife cases. When they returned in daylight, the big male bear was still there. A trooper then shot the bear and killed it.

All backpackers in the park are required to receive “Bear Aware” training prior to receiving a backcountry permit. This includes watching a 30-minute bear safety video and attending a safety briefing from the backcountry ranger staff. Backpackers are also required to carry a Bear Resistant Food Container.

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