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Woman suffers serious injuries in bear mauling near Anchorage

Craig Medred and Suzanna Caldwell
A sign hangs at the Bird Valley trailhead along Alaska's Turnagain Arm on July 7, 2014, warning people of a recent bear mauling in the area. Craig Medred photo

The second grizzly bear mauling in less than two months on the outskirts of Alaska's largest city has sent another runner to the hospital with serious injuries. The attack this time came in Bird Valley, just south of Anchorage. It follows on an attack at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in mid-May.

Both attacks involved people surprising grizzly sows with cubs. The JBER attack involved a sow with small cubs of the year. The latest attack was launched by a sow with two nearly grown cubs, probably 2-year-olds.

Runner Suzanne Knudsen, who lives in a roadside community called Indian south of Anchorage, was less than a mile down the Bird Valley Trail near her home on Monday morning when she encountered the sow and cubs, according to Jessy Coltrane, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Grizzly sows are notoriously protective. This one disabled Knudsen, but the 59-year-old woman was able to use her cell phone to call for help after the attack. Troopers took the call in their Soldotna dispatch center at 10:20 a.m., according to spokeswoman Megan Peters. They quickly dispatched a trooper toward the scene.

He rushed to the Bird Valley Trailhead to aid volunteers from Alaska ATV Adventures in rescuing Knudsen. The company runs all-terrain vehicle tours along a network of old logging roads in Bird Creek valley.

With their help, the trooper was able to get Knudsen back to the large parking lot at the trailhead and aboard a helicopter to Anchorage within an hour, said Coltrane. The emergency response was, by Alaska standards, amazingly fast. Though Knudsen was badly injured in the attack, troopers said her injuries did not appear life-threatening.

The location of the attack was near an avalanche run-out chute that grows thick with brush and grass in the summer. The trail, which starts as a road-wide path through spruce forest, narrows there and the cover on both sides thickens.

In a statement from troopers, Knudsen is reported to have said she was running along the trail when two brown bear cubs came out of the brush in front of her. She said that one cub started to come toward her, and then she was hit from behind by the mother bear. She was knocked to the ground. It is unclear how long she was down before she decided the bears were safely gone and called 911.

Shortly after that call was placed, guides from Alaska ATV Adventures came upon Knudsen on the trail. They were able to transport her back to the trailhead to meet the trooper. The group also loaned an ATV to a trooper to reach the site of the attack, troopers reported. Coltrane and state wildlife biologist Dave Battle later showed up to investigate. They could find nothing that would have attracted the bears to the area of the attack.

There was no evidence the bear was defending a moose kill or other food source in the area, Coltrane said. But the biologists noted the entire valley is well-known bear territory. It borders the sides of the soon-to-be-salmon-filled Bird Creek and its nearby tributary, Penguin Creek. Bears are already filtering into the area to look for fish.

Runners and hikers are advised to be alert for bears in the area. But Knudsen, a local resident familiar with what was for her a neighborhood trail, was wearing in-ear headphones and not carrying bear spray, Coltrane said.

The trail will be officially closed for a week, per Chugach State Park policy. Signs are up warning hikers. The trail is part of a system of trails in the nearly half-million acre Chugach State Park.

The attack on Knudsen was the third Alaska bear mauling this summer. A Slana resident was mauled by a grizzly near his Interior Alaska cabin in June. In May, the woman who became separated from her husband while running at JBER was attacked. Both suffered serious injuries but survived.

The last deadly bear attack in the Anchorage area was in 1995. A bear apparently defending a moose kill in July of that year killed a popular local runner and her son near McHugh Creek, only about 10 miles from the site of the latest mauling. Chugach park has a large and healthy grizzly population and runners, hikers, dog walkers and others are warned to be on the alert for bears any time they venture out of the Anchorage city center.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@alaskadispatch.com. Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.