Grizzly attack baffles bear experts

Craig Medred

A grizzly bear attack in a campground near Yellowstone National Park is challenging the long-held belief that there is safety in numbers when around bears. In the dark of night Wednesday, a sow with three cubs went on a rampage in the Soda Butte campground in the Gallatin National Forest on the park's northern edge. One camper was killed; two were injured. The bear was later captured.

Bear experts across the country are baffled. There are few precedents for bears invading campgrounds and attacking people, although bears have been in campgrounds around Yellowstone and in Alaska for years. A camper at the Russian River campground in the Chugach National Forest near Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula was nipped by a grizzly in 2006. The bear stepped on the Chicago camper's tent, and then bit at the shoulder of the man inside.

The man screamed and the bear fled. That has historically been the norm. The availability of food in the campground was later blamed for attracting the bear in the first place. Food is often blamed, but authorities are saying that there was no food left out by anyone to attract bears at Soda Butte.

Just as there was believed to be no food attracting a bear to the camp of Rich and Kathy Huffman along the Hulahula River in 2005. They were camped along the river on the north side of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when a bear attacked the tent and killed them both. An Alaska attorney with considerable Bush experience, Rich, 61, had a rifle in the tent but was unable to get it into action fast enough to stop the bear.

Still, bear experts say it was wise of him to try to fight back. Bear authorities say that it is never good to play dead in the case of a "predatory" attack. For instance, a grizzly bear coming after your tent to try to get you, or a black bear -- normally a docile animal -- attacking for any reason.

There are indications the victim in the attack might have played dead. A teenage boy who survived the attack told authorities he drove the bear off by hitting it in the head after it bit him in the leg. And after the attack began other campers alerted by people screaming were able to drive the bears out of the campground by making noise, including driving around in their vehicles honking horns.

Vehicles provide a measure of safety. For a time when bears were thought to be a problem at the Russian River, the U.S. Forest Service banned tent camping and said people could only stay there in RVs. There are no known cases of a bear forcing its way into an RV in Alaska, though some have banged on the vehicles pretty aggressively.