Eagle River — Biologists have determined from DNA samples that the same brown bear was involved in a fatal attack and a non-fatal mauling in June near the end of Hiland Road. The fatal attack likely occurred a day or two prior to the non-fatal mauling, and both locations were within 10-20 yards of each other. It appears the non-fatal attack resulted as the bear defended the body which had been cached.
There were no witnesses to the fatal attack and it is not known if it began as a predatory attack or a surprise/defensive attack that changed into predatory behavior. Regardless, the fatal attack occurred in a residential area also popular for outdoor recreation, and which has had multiple recent reports of aggressive bear charges.
“The department reacts to bear attacks on people on a case-by-case basis,” said Division Director Bruce Dale. “In this case we’ve also consulted with experts outside Alaska who have extensive experience with bear attacks. The consensus is that bears exhibiting these behaviors could be a further danger to people.”
In response, department staff immediately set out live traps and has run them nearly continuously for the past month. During that time, only three black bears and no brown bears have been caught, and the black bears were released. In addition, on July 13 department staff killed a female brown bear and her two yearling cubs within one half mile of the attack sites. Prior to July 13, and after the fatal attack, the department received multiple reports of aggressive behavior by brown bears with young from the Hiland Road/South Fork Eagle River area. DNA analysis has determined that the female and the yearlings were not involved with either of the attacks. Reports of aggressive activity by brown bears in the area have since decreased.
“Unfortunately, that was not the bear we’ve been looking for,” said Area Wildlife Biologist Dave Battle. “However, protecting the public is our priority, and removal of those bears will not adversely affect the overall health of the population. Although we don’t have a population estimate, we believe brown bear are plentiful in the area.”
Biologists considered using tranquilizer darts to capture brown bears in the area, collect DNA samples, and fit the bears with GPS collars so that any bear found to be a match for the Hiland Road attacks could again be located and killed. While such an effort might spare bears not connected to the attacks, it was discounted as being too risky. Even if collared, it could take up to a week to identify the attacking bear through DNA analysis.
“Imagine if we handled and released a bear that’s already killed one person only to have it injure or kill someone else while we process DNA,” said Battle. “That’s an unacceptable public safety risk.”
Because the fatal attack occurred in a residential area also popular for outdoor recreation, and which has had multiple reports of aggressive bear encounters, the department will continue to monitor bear activity in the Hiland Road/South Fork Eagle River area and respond to any situation with appropriate action.
Most of Alaska is bear country and while attacks on humans are rare, they can occur almost anywhere in the state. For information on safety in bear country see www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main