Twice in less than two months, grizzly bears in the 49th state have attacked, killed and partially eaten people in remote parts of the state. Grizzlies treating humans as prey is rare, which makes it more unusual for the state to see two such predatory attacks in the space of only about 45 days after going seven years without a bear-caused fatality.
The latest victim is believed to be 54-year-old Tomas Puerta from Sitka. His skiff was found Sunday at Poison Cove just off Peril Strait to the north of the Panhandle community of about 9,000. Passersby who spotted his boat adrift in the cove went ashore to near what appeared to be a campsite to see if anyone was in trouble. They reported being confronted by a sow grizzly.
"When they were taking a look and investigating that, they had gone back in the woods a little bit farther, and hollered, and ended up startling a sow and cub,” Sitka Mountain Rescue Capt. Don Kluting told public radio station KCAW. “Things just didn’t seem right to them, so they went back out to their boat and notified Coast Guard sector Juneau.”
The Coast Guard notified Alaska State Troopers, who are in charge of search and rescue operations in Alaska. Troopers called in help from Mountain Rescue and the Sitka Police Department. All went to investigate. Sitka police later issued a statement saying they'd found a campsite with evidence of a struggle, a trail of disturbed vegetation, and a grizzly bear food cache containing some human remains.
Identification found at the scene, along with reports from Puerta's friends who said he was headed to the area to cut trees as part of a Tongass National Forest timber thinning project, led to the tentative conclusion the unidentifiable remains were his. What was left of the body has been sent to the state Medical Examiner's office in Anchorage, some 600 miles north. A positive identification will be made there.
Puerta's death follows on that of San Diego hiker Richard White, who was killed and partially eaten in Denali National Park and Preserve on Aug. 24. An experienced hiker, the 49-year-old White was on a solo backpacking trip along the Toklat River when it is believed he encountered a lone grizzly which attacked. The circumstance of that discovery were similar to those surrounding the detection of the remains believed to be Puerta.
Other Toklat hikers found a backpack, some torn clothing and apparent signs of a bear attack. They retreated and notified park rangers. Rangers went to investigate and were confronted by a male grizzly. The animal was later shot and killed by state troopers. Rangers said photographs recovered from White's camera and genetic evidence indicate the dead bear was the bear that attacked and killed him.
The photos in White's camera showed that he had stopped to take pictures of the animal. The photos covered the span of eight minutes. They show the bear approaching to within 60 yards of White, but there are no photos of the bear charging. Early on, there was speculation White might have provoked the attack by approaching the bear too closely, but there is scant evidence to support that theory.
The National Park Service recommends hikers stay at least 300 yards from bears in Denali, but that isn't always possible. Chance encounters at close range in the park are not uncommon, and Alaska these days appears to be a magnet for people who want to get a lot closer than 60 yards to a bear. None of them have been attacked this year despite witnessed encounters between people and bears as close at 20 feet -- almost 10 times closer to a bear than White got.
Bear experts agree the grizzlies in Denali park tend to be more aggressive than their coastal neighbors because of the more limited food supply in the Alaska Interior. The same is true of bears throughout that region and into the Arctic. The last bear fatalities prior to White's death occurred in the Arctic in June 2005. An Anchorage couple, Rich Huffman, 61, and his 58-year-old wife, Kathy, were attacked and killed as they slept in their tent along the Hulahula in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Prior to that time, bear deaths had been averaging about one person every two years. Six people died in the 1990s, and two had died prior to the Huffmans in the 2000s, bringing that decades death toll to four. The total of 10 for the two decades amounts to a death every two years. Bear biologist Tom Smith, formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska and now at Brigham Young University in Utah, said there is no explanation for why the death rate fell to zero from 2005 until this year.
Authorities in Southeast Alaska noted no one in that region of the 49th state had been killed by a bear since 2000. A camper was that year killed in the tiny town of Hyder on the Canadian border at the southern tip of the state. The last time a bear killed someone in the so-called ABC Islands -- Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof -- was in 1988. The islands have some of the densest grizzly bear populations in North America.
The wild, 967,000-acre Admiralty Island National Monument, immediately adjacent to Chichagof Island on which Puerta is believed to have perished, was known to the Native Tlingit Indians as "The Fortress of the Bears.'' Despite the large number of the animals, they are usually not a threat to people.
“In most cases, when bears and people come in contact, it’s sort of reciprocal: both want to get out of one another’s way, and bears typically will flee, assuming they’ve got a place to get away to or an avenue out,” Doug Larsen, Southeast regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife told KCAW. But as two cases in two months demonstrate, it doesn't always work that way.
In the wilds of Alaska, one hard-and-fast rule is that there are no givens. Smith and other authorities recommend people are safest traveling in groups, being constantly on the alert for bears, and carrying some sort of weapon for self-defense -- be it bear-repelling pepper spray or a firearm. It is unclear whether Puetra had either. White had neither. The park discourages firearms, and he was not carrying bear spray.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com