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Snare snags brown bear sow in Katmai, where trapping is illegal

Megan Edge
Bear 854, known as Divot, is a sow who hangs out near the Brooks Camp at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Park officials noticed she had gotten a snare tangled around her neck Monday, July 28, 2014. She was tranquilized Wednesday, July 30, and the snare was removed. Katmai National Park and Preserve

Trapping in Katmai National Park and Preserve is never legal for any reason -- not even as predator control. So, how brown bear sow 854, better known as Divot by hers fans and spectators, ended up with a snare wrapped around her neck and piercing her flesh remains a mystery.

According to Troy Hamon, chief of management and science at Katmai National Park and Preserve, the sow was first spotted Monday by park employees. With her was a cub.

"Regularly when there are sick and injured bears, people would like us to help," said Hamon during a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "But our job is to preserve natural process -- but this is not a natural process. It was one we had the power to rectify, and we were afraid to delay because we didn't know how serious her injuries were."

It wasn't until Wednesday at noon that biologists and park officials were able to remove the snare from the animal's neck, where it had cut about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) deep into her flesh.

"There were a lot of ways this operation could have gone wrong," said National Park Service biologist Grant Hilderbrand.

Hilderbrand was notified Monday afternoon that he would need to help the people at Katmai tranquilize Divot and then remove the snare. He said he didn't make it to the park until Tuesday afternoon.

"Once I got there, the bear had been in Brooks Camp two days prior, (and) we located her 2 miles to the west at Dumpling Creek," said Hilderbrand, adding the creek is the runoff from Dumpling Mountain. "There is this thin beach, and right at the point there (is) a little salmon stream."

He said the crews from the national park set up in boats floating in Dumpling Creek but the bear kept wandering into the forest, which became problematic as the dart gun only sends a dart about 20 yards, said Hilderbrand, who's been an Alaska biologist for about 20 years.

"We saw her one time in about two days but with the boats, we couldn't get to her and get set up," said Hilderbrand. "Over the course of the next two days we just watched. We did sweeps in the woods to try and flush her out. The only way to get a decent shot was on the beach. We would not have handled her there if she wasn't so compromised given the shape of her wound."

Wednesday, they were able to take her down. Her cub stayed about 30 feet away while biologists worked on its mother. The wound was "basically filleted open all the around her neck," but Hilderbrand said Divot was "lucky." The snare didn't expose any muscle, and there was only a small amount of surface infection.

"They cleaned it really well," said Hamon. "I am sure she doesn't know what a blessing it was to be asleep. She will thank us later."

Hilderbrand said tranquilizing an animal near water is dangerous. Divot got movement back in her head about 45 minutes after being tranquilized. If she had rolled into the water, she could have drowned, but Hilderbrand said they didn't have much of a choice.

"When I say beach, I mean a 12-foot-wide gravel strip," said Hilderbrand.

Under the influence of the drug Telazol, which acts as a tranquilizer and analgesic, the bear went down in about two minutes, according to Hilderbrand. He said it takes anywhere from two to four hours for a bear to become fully mobile again. But, he added, like humans who are drugged during surgery, the bear won't feel "100 percent" for about 12 to 24 hours afterward.

Hilderbrand and Hamon said they believe Divot will recover nicely. While she woke up, her cub rotated between fishing and sitting with her. 

Had any other bear been in the area, it could have been more dangerous.

"Once you've tranquilized that bear, you have a commitment to that bear for sure," said Hamon. "One of the biggest hazards of tranquilizing a bear is another bear finding them and taking advantage. Bears are amazing but no one said they were nice."

When park officials were done cleaning the wound, some stayed in a boat to watch and make sure Divot was able to recover.

But how she ever got tangled in the snare still remains a mystery. Hamon said in 16 years on the job he's never seen anything like it. He doesn't know where she was. Winter is the primary trapping season, but it's likely the trap wasn't meant for a bear, as brown bear trapping is very limited.

"I can tell you occasionally people leave their snares out when the winter is done," said Capt. Bernard Chastain, an Alaska Wildlife Trooper of 16 years. He said depending on the severity of the circumstance, a person who traps illegally or leaves a trap out past permitted dates can see a hefty fine or even jail time.

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