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Troopers: Man dead in bear attack near Delta Junction

Casey Grove

A bear killed a 64-year-old Fairbanks man late Thursday outside a cabin on Lake George, southeast of Delta Junction, according to Alaska State Troopers.

It was unclear Friday what kind of bear attacked Robert Weaver, forcing a family member to hide inside the cabin and block the door, troopers said.

A wildlife trooper shot and killed a black bear that "wandered on scene" later, but it is unknown if that is the bear that mauled Weaver, a troopers statement said. State wildlife biologists say they will examine its carcass and are looking into the circumstances of the rare fatal bear mauling in Interior Alaska.

Weaver's remains will undergo an autopsy at the state medical examiner's office in Anchorage, troopers said.

Troopers were in the field investigating Friday and working on other cases, so many details of the bear attack were unavailable, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said.

Weaver's next of kin, whom troopers are not identifying, called 911 to report the bear attack about 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Peters said. The person said they were hiding inside a cabin and that a man was outside on the ground, the troopers statement said.

"The person was advised to attempt to block the door," Peters said. "There wasn't a lot of items in the cabin to use to block the door. The response was large because without knowing how secure the individual inside the cabin was, there was definite concern for their safety."

Peters said troopers in an R-44 helicopter, Helo-2, tried to fly to the cabin but could not reach it "due to terrain." Military rescuers in an HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter from Eielson Air Force Base hoisted down to the area of the cabin, Peters said. The wildlife trooper came by airboat with good Samaritans, she said.

Just after 9 p.m., military personnel found Weaver dead outside the cabin and a person inside, troopers said.

"Troopers searched the area but no bear was located," the statement says.

It was some time shortly after that, as their investigation continued, that the wildlife trooper shot a black bear that had come into the area, troopers said.

"Soon after the helicopter left, the black bear surprised the trooper and a civilian assisting," Peters said. "It essentially snuck up on them while they were working and it was shot at a close proximity."

The troopers were transporting the bear's carcass to Fairbanks for a necropsy by biologists from the Department of Fish and Game.

Biologist Cathie Harms said she hoped to have a wildlife veterinarian conduct an examination of the bear Friday afternoon. Harms said midday Friday she did not yet know the bear's sex, age or size.

"Our primary responsibility is conducting the necropsy, collecting as much evidence as possible, looking into the situation, trying to relate it to what we know about bear behavior and helping shed light on what happened," Harms said. "But at this time, it's premature to say anything, because we haven't done any of that yet."

A typical necropsy involves looking at the overall health of the bear, including if it was diseased, Harms said. The veterinarian will also take measurements of the bear's teeth so a medical examiner can compare them to any bite marks on the victim, and collect DNA evidence from the bear and its claws, she said.

"In many cases the stomach is sent to the medical examiner," Harms said.

Fatal bear maulings are rare, Harms said. Fatal attacks by black bears are even rarer, she said.

"But it's happened. It would not be unprecedented."

First, an autopsy will have to confirm what troopers suspect, that a bear killed Weaver, Harms said. If so, the information biologists gather would be used to see if the dead black bear is the animal that attacked Weaver, she said.

"Based on the way the bear was approaching the trooper and the civilian, it wouldn't surprise us. It was actively sneaking up on them," Peters said.

Peters said early trooper reports indicated the person who reported the attack was with Weaver when they encountered the bear, but it was unclear Friday how much of the mauling the person witnessed and if he or she saw what type of bear was involved.

"The person was pretty traumatized by the experience, so we're not rushing a follow-up interview," Peters said. "And of course there are things we can learn from the autopsy and necropsy. We don't want to make them relive the trauma ."

It's also possible that another bear killed Weaver and is still in the area, Harms said.

"If we learn that the chances are very, very slim that this bear was involved, people in the area will be keeping an eye out and we'll make a decision later if any further action is necessary."

Still, Harms said, it's the time of year that people are venturing more into bear country. Rather than be concerned about a specific attack, anyone in the wilderness should take normal bear precautions to stay safe, she said. That includes making noise so as not to surprise bears, not allowing bears to get into human food, and staying away from food bears have cached, Harms said.

Fish and Game has more information on bear safety online at www.adfg.alaska.gov on its "Living With Bears" page.

"All bears are dangerous," Peters said when asked if troopers were concerned about a dangerous bear in the area.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com