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Grizzly-mauled guardsman had just been trained in how to react to bear attack

Craig Medred

An Alaska Army National Guard sergeant from Valdez is recovering from his injuries after an encounter with a sow grizzly bear and her cubs on the outskirts of Anchorage.

Twenty-six-year-old Lucas Wendeborn of the 1-297th Cavalry was participating in a navigational exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson just before noon on Sunday when he crossed paths with the bears, according a press release from the Guard.

"Wendeborn was walking through dense woods, passed a tree and saw the brown bear, a sow with two cubs, pop out of the brush a few yards in front of him,'' it said. "They made eye contact and he immediately adapted to what he had been taught to do.

"He dropped to the ground and remained still. He was swiftly approached by the sow, which picked him up by the hip and tossed him. He was bitten and swatted at before she retreated. After she left, Wendeborn waited about 15 to 30 seconds, stood and blew his safety whistle, and then made his way toward a nearby road."

Wendeborn suffered cuts on his left shoulder, back and chest, and puncture wounds under his left shoulder blade and right ribcage where the bear grabbed him and picked him up. He is in stable condition at the JBER hospital.

His injuries do not appear as severe as those suffered by 25-year-old Jessica Gamboa, who was attacked while running on a JBER road in May. Her injuries were severe enough JBER doctors sent her to the trauma center at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, fearing she might be close to death.

She survived and is recovering.

Both attacks involved a sow and two cubs, and happened within an area that would fall within the size of a home range for a grizzly bear. However, it is not known if the attacks involve the same bear.

Bears can be identified by their DNA, but Jessy Coltrane, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said officials were unable to obtain hair or saliva from the bear that attacked Gamboa, so they have nothing to match to the bear involved in the latest attack.

A third grizzly mauling near Alaska's largest city in recent weeks also involved a sow with two cubs, but that attack was more than 20 miles south of JBER and likely involved another trio of bears. Fifty-nine-year-old Suzanne Knudsen of Indian was jogging while wearing headphones on a Bird Creek Valley trail near her home in early July when she was attacked.

She also was hospitalized with serious injuries but is now recovering.

Wendeborn wasn't running or wearing headphones when he stumbled into a sow with cubs at close range. However, like the other bear attack victims, he had no bear spray or other weapon with which to defend himself.

A query to the National Guard office of public affairs as to why soldiers aren't issued bear spray before being sent out on training exercises in thick cover went unanswered.

The Guard press release said Wendeborn was participating in a land navigation exercise as part of a 22-day Warrior Leadership Course for junior enlisted soldiers. As part of one exercise in the class, soldiers are given a compass, a map and directions to several locations within a test area.

They are required to navigate from point to point in a set amount of time to pass the exercise. Wendeborn was alertly making his way through the woods looking for his next target when he spotted the bears. But by then they were too close.

"He had just received a safety briefing that morning that included how to react to a brown bear encounter,” the Guard press release said, quoting Command Sgt. Maj. Alan Feaster, commandant for the 207th Multi-functional Training Regiment that conducts the navigation course.

"Sgt. Wendeborn said this was a textbook example of a worst-case scenario,” Feaster recalled. “He said, ‘I remember exactly what I was told and I did exactly what I was told, and it probably saved my life.’”

Covering up and playing dead is the recommended response for unarmed people attacked by a grizzly bear sow with cubs, and in all three cases in the Anchorage area this year the victims have played dead. They all survived.

Wildlife authorities warn, however, that playing dead is not advisable in an attack by a black bear. Black bears rarely attack, but when they do it is sometimes because they have decided to make prey of people.

Fish and Game has a website with advice on bear identification and tips on what to do if you encounter a bear.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story stated that both Jessica Gamboa and Suzanne Knudsen were wearing headphones. Only Knudsen was when she was attacked.