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JBER mauling leads to 'bearanoia'

Craig Medred
Since last weekend, when an unnamed woman was mauled by a grizzly bear on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the ensuing information vacuum has led to rampant speculation and the perpetuation of at least one well-debunked myth. Jitze Couperus / cc via flickr

Since Sunday when an unnamed woman was mauled by a grizzly bear on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, commonly abbreviated as "J-bear" in the neighboring community of Anchorage, it seems an information vacuum has developed into which is being sucked all sorts of bearanoia.

On Thursday, the Facebook page for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management issued a new warning about a dangerous bear roaming the base adjacent to Alaska's largest city.

"JBER Personnel Bear Alert!" it said. "The inner loop of the running trail at the southeastern end of the trail has been closed until further notice. Tripod and her cubs are staying very close to that region. A momma bear with cubs should be taken very seriously."

According to sources on and off the base, Tripod is a black bear with a bad leg. A member of the base wildlife management staff on Friday described Tripod as a "little black bear" but added that he couldn't talk about it.

He referred questions to the base public affairs office, which wasn't talking either. Neither Maj. Angela Webb, who took charge of information after what was reported to be a grizzly bear mauling earlier in the week, nor base spokesman Jim Hart returned phone calls.

Though the JBER name for the bear involved in the Sunday’s mauling has not been revealed, it is clear from talking to state officials who have worked on the base over the years that the bear is not Tripod -- nor is it likely any other black bear sow.

All the evidence indicates it is a grizzly bear, if for no other reason than how it behaved.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about black bears is that mothers are likely to attack people in defense of cubs," notes the North American Bear Center.

"That is a grizzly bear trait. Seventy percent of the killings by grizzly bears are by mothers defending cubs. But there is no record of a black bear killing anyone in defense of cubs.

"In fact, mothers with cubs were involved in only three of the 60 killings by black bears across America since 1900, and none of those three killings appeared to be in defense of cubs."

Alaska wildlife authorities say there has never been a case in the 49th state in which a black bear sow with cubs killed anyone.

Since 1970, black bears have killed 64-year-old George Weaver near Delta Junction last June and 33-year-old Darcy Staver near Glennallen in July 1992. Both fit a profile developed by biologist Stephen Herrero, a Canadian authority on bear behavior.

"Most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and all fatal attacks were carried out by a single bear," he reported. The deadliest black bear, according to Herrero, is not a sow with cubs living near an urban area, but a lone bear, usually a male, living far from people. Those bears sometimes appear to decide they will kill people to eat them.

Grizzly bears were once thought to be largely free of this predatory trait, but there have in recent years been a number of high-profile cases in which they have eaten people in Alaska, including California bear lover Timothy Treadwell, who was killed along with his girlfriend in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003.

Grizzlies have killed at least 15 people in Alaska since 1970, and though these bears sometimes turn predatory toward people, as happened with Treadwell, most attacks and most injuries come from chance encounters between humans and sows with cubs. The sow attacks to defend her young and usually retreats after she is confident any threat has been eliminated.

That is what happened to Seattle college student Julia Stafford in 2012. She was working as a prospector for a mining company in Interior Alaska when she walked into a grizzly sow with cubs.

"The bear sort of walked out of the fog and it had two cubs with it,” Stafford later told Tim Mowry of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. “We started walking uphill to get away from it and it started walking toward us. We stopped once we saw it was following us and tried to get the bear spray out, but by then it was already running toward us."

The bear knocked Stafford and a co-worker to the ground and then grabbed Stafford by the hand.

"It bit my hand and kind of dragged me 20 feet over the rocks and just left me,” the then-20-year-old woman said. “I was worried I was going to die briefly, but it was fine once she let me go and ran away.”

The incident at JBER on the edge of Anchorage on Sunday appears similar, though details remain sketchy. The base has kept secret the name of the woman attacked and offered varying accounts of what happened. All that is really known is that she got separated from her husband while on a running trail and was attacked.

Mark Sledge, the base's senior conservation officer, told Alaska Dispatch the attack happened so fast the woman had no time to react. But Maj. Angela Webb told the Associated Press and other media that the bear assumed some sort of "defensive position" before the attack.

Both Sledge and Webb added that the woman was not interviewed before being taken to Alaska Native Medical Center. It is unclear whether she has yet been interviewed. It is unknown whether she was carrying bear spray, which JBER recommends.

The woman has been described as a military dependent. Why she was taken to the Native Medical Center in Anchorage instead of the Elmendorf Hospital is also unclear. A base spokeswoman reached Thursday night said she had no idea of how the woman is recovering from her injuries.

Meanwhile, rampant speculation has erupted on the Facebook page of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with more than 170 people involved in a discussion that has some accusing the woman of somehow being responsible for the attack (there is no evidence to support that conclusion), others defending her actions, some wanting the bear shot, others expressing the opinion the bear should be protected, and a few worrying that Tripod might somehow be implicated.

"Our safety officer briefed us that the couple were running and came around a curve," one woman wrote there. "Husband was ahead and they didn't see anything until the mom bear was on her. We call her Tripod. She is a regular around those parts with 3 cubs. It's sad for all parties involved."

Another Facebook poster moved quickly to correct that information: "Tripod is a three legged (well one gimp leg) black bear. She is a regular, but is black not brown. Someone isn't putting out right info."

Into the JBER information vacuum flew all sorts of stuff, including some long discounted information.

"Women, you should never go hiking, walking, or camping in the woods when its 'your time of the month,' bears and other wildlife have a keen sense of smell and will attack you if they smell blood," one commenter wrote beneath the official post about the attack, which released little information.

The myth that bears attack menstruating women dates back to a horrific 1967 bear attack at Glacier National Park. Two women were killed there in one night. One of them was having her period. Speculation quickly arose that the bear had been attracted by the smell of blood.

There was never any evidence to support the theory. Biologists tried for years to refute it, but the theory lived on. The National Park Service attacked the myth head-on two years ago with a study at Yellowstone National Park.

NBC News later reported that "despite campfire fears dating back to at least 1967, black bears and grizzly bears are not attracted to the odors of menstruation, according to a recent Yellowstone National Park report. But clearly, as with previous reports, this one didn't kill the menstruation myth either.