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Troopers kill Alaska brown bear after it attacks birder at Kasilof River

Suzanna Caldwell
Birder Toby Burke, 48, walked away with minor cuts and bruises after sow attacked him and his family Sunday afternoon at the Kasilof River Beach on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Doug Lindstrand photo

A Kenai family got a surprise scare Sunday afternoon after being charged by an erratic brown bear. Toby Burke, 48, walked away with some minor cuts and bruises after a female brown bear attacked him and his family Sunday afternoon at the Kasilof River Beach on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. According to Alaska State Trooper dispatch, the bear had been acting oddly, attacking both a vehicle and telephone pole before charging Burke.

The female brown bear was killed shortly after attacking Burke, after the bear charged responding troopers.

According to spokeswoman Megan Peters, troopers suspect the bear was starving. Initially, they suspected the bear was between 2 to 3 years old based on its small size. But on closer inspection, the sow’s worn-down teeth suggested she was at least 10 years old, Peters said.

She noted the incident is a reminder that bears are emerging from their winter hibernation, and after a winter without food, some bears can be aggressive. People recreating outdoors should be alert.

Birdwatching to bear mauling

The aggressive grizzly put a frightening end to an otherwise quiet day of birdwatching for the Burke family.

Burke's wife, Laura, said the day started out uneventfully. The couple took three of their children -- 11-year-old Grace, 8-year-old Damien, and 7-month-old Camille -- to the beach to as part of a Sunday shorebird survey.

Laura Burke, speaking from her Kenai home on Monday, said the family saw the bear emerge from the woods about a quarter mile away. It looked thin and wandered aimlessly. Peters said there were later reports of the bear swatting at the river, looking to catch a salmon months before they return to the river.

“(The bear) wasn't all there,” Laura Burke said.

The Burkes moved down the beach to get away from the bear, watching as it headed back into the willows and out of sight.

But unexpectedly, the bear circled back around to the family. Burke's daughter, Grace was the first to spot the bear.

From there, things developed quickly. The family huddled together (7-month-old Camille stayed strapped to Laura's back) and raised their arms to make noise to try to scare the bear away.

It didn't work, with the bear instead lunging at the family. Toby stepped in front, wielding a tripod with a birdwatching scope on it to push back against the bear. The bear quickly bit the scope off the tripod.

Toby Burke continued to stab at the bear with the tripod, but the animal wouldn't retreat, swatting at Burke and eventually engaging in something of a wrestling match with him.

Can't play dead

Laura Burke said that during the encounter, her husband, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wondered whether he was doing the right thing.

“He can't play dead, because we're there,” she said. “If it wasn't going to get him it was going to get us.”

After about 20 seconds, the bear disengaged, turned and left the family behind. As it retreated, the bear attacked a fence post and light pole before heading back into the woods, Laura Burke said.

The family immediately called 911 and carefully made their way back to their van. Troopers arrived shortly afterward and were quickly charged by the bear, too.

Despite the dramatic encounter, Toby Burke walked away with only minor cuts and. He was wearing thick clothing and the bear's dull teeth barely broke his skin.

The biggest loss to the family? Laura Burke said baby Camille lost her mitten in the scuffle.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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