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Grizzly kills San Diego backpacker in Alaska's Denali National Park

A grizzly bear believed to have killed and partially eaten a lone backpacker along the Toklat River in Denali National Park and Preserve was Saturday shot dead by an Alaska Wildlife Trooper hovering in a helicopter above the scene of the earlier attack.

National Park Service officials believe the bear that was killed is the same bear that attacked 49-year-old backpacker Richard White from San Diego on Friday. His death marked the first fatal bear attack in the 49th state this year -- and the first in Denali’s modern era.

A wallet with identification was found near White's remains. Park officials said he had spent three days exploring the park's wilderness prior to the attack.

“It would appear the hiker was coming down on a Toklat River (gravel) bar and came upon a bear at the edge of the river,” Denali National Park Superintendent Paul Anderson said at a press conference on Saturday. “Rather than try to move around the bear and keep a quarter-mile distance, he approached within 50 yards."

Park rangers caution hikers that the best way to avoid problems with bears in Alaska is to spot them early and then try to avoid them. The dead hiker appears to have ignored that advice. It is unknown whether he had any previous experience with grizzly bears or hiking in Denali. White was not carrying a gun or pepper spray, which has proven an effective bear deterrent.

Anderson said White's digital camera was among the items recovered Friday night when a crew first arrived on the scene of the bear attack, and the camera’s timer indicated White spent about eight minutes photographing the bear.

“It was grazing, not aggressive in any manner,” Anderson said after park officials reviewed the photos. There were, he added, no images of a charging bear, but the camera does show the hiker got close to the animal.

“The normal behavior of people is to remain a quarter-mile away from bears and immediately back away if it gets closer,” Anderson said.

The hiker was briefed on these rules before he began his backcountry trip, Anderson added.

Rare attack, bear shooting

After the attack, Anderson said, officials decided they had no choice but to kill the bear. “We don’t shoot bears in Denali on a frequent basis,” he said. This is the first bear shooting in his 20 years at Denali National Park.

Denali Chief Ranger Pete Webster said the bear was a large male. A necropsy later performed on the carcass of the animal determined it had preyed on White. Anderson estimated that about a dozen bears frequent the Toklat River area. They are a small proportion of the estimated 350 bears that roam the park’s 6 million acres.

The Toklat, however, is not only popular with bears. It is also popular with people. It is a well-known destination for both day hikers and backpackers. It intersects the Denali Park Road about 50 miles into the huge, federally protected wilderness.

Park officials said it was day hikers who'd ventured about three miles off the road on Friday who initially found evidence of a deadly encounter. They discovered an abandoned backpack, a press release said, and "upon further investigation, they saw evidence of a violent struggle, including torn clothing and blood. They immediately hiked back to the rest area and notified the National Park Service staff of the findings at approximately 5:30 p.m."

Park rangers took to the air in a helicopter and airplane to begin a search at about 8 p.m. They found the kill site only 30 minutes later.

"At least one grizzly bear was still at the site,'' the Park Service reported. "The bear moved away when the helicopter approached and landed. Two rangers on board the helicopter got out and confirmed the location of the victim’s remains."

Clearing area of hikers

By Saturday morning, Park Service officials were scrambling to clear the area of any hikers. About a dozen parties were in or around the Toklat, Anderson said. Two of the more remote parties were flown out of the backcountry to the Toklat Visitors Center, where they caught buses back to the park entrance.

The area was then closed to visitors and remains so.

With the area cleared of people, officials returned to the site of the mauling about 2:30 p.m. The weather was deteriorating, they said, with heavier cloud cover moving in. Officials found the large boar grizzly protecting a cache, about 150 yards from where White was mauled.

A cache is where a bear buries its uneaten food to keep it away after other predators until it can finish eating everything.

One more bear was seen in the area of the cache, according to park officials, and two others were seen in different parts of the valley. But they believe the bear they shot on the cache was the bear that killed White. Park officials may never know for certain, however, if they killed the right bear. In an area where bears concentrate, there is always the possibility of a large boar taking over the cache of a small bear that has made a kill.

Fatal attacks uncommon

Bear attacks are not uncommon in Alaska in the summer months. There are several every year, and there have been at least three on the outskirts of Anchorage, the state's largest city, this season. But fatal attacks are uncommon. The last deadly attack was in 2005 when an Anchorage couple, Rich and Kathy Huffman, were killed by a bear while camping in a tent along the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the state's North Slope.

A group of eight students from the National Outdoor Leadership School were victims of a horrific attack in the Talkeetna Mountains about 110 miles north of Anchorage last summer, but all survived. That incident was at first considered unusual in that bears rarely attack groups of more than three people. But as details of the attack emerged doubts began to arise as to whether the bear knew it had encountered so many hikers.

The Denali attack appears to have more in common with past fatal attacks. A lone hiker encounters a bear that either attacks because it has been startled or, in the rarest of cases, views a human as prey. It appears the latter might be the case in Denali, which has not witnessed a fatal attack in modern times.

Treadwell and Huguenard

The last time the Park Service dealt with a fatal bear attack in Alaska was in 2003 when a bear attacked, killed and ate self-professed bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell, 46, and girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, at Katmai National Park and Preserve about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. Denali is about 240 miles in the opposite direction from the city.

Treadwell had spent years playing dangerous games with bears and his eventual death came as no great surprise to many people. The founder of an organization called Grizzly People, he had wanted to make friends with the 200 to 1,500 pound animals. It cost him his life.

He was not the first. More than 30 years ago, another hiker taking photos of a bear in an Alaska national park was killed by a grizzly bear in the Glacier Bay National Monument, now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. That incident is eerily similar to the latest at Denali.

A 25-year-old man from Illinois, Allan Precup planned a few days of solo backpacking in the monument. He was last seen alive on Sept. 9, 1976, when he was dropped off at Wolf Point by the tour vessel Thunder Bay. When he failed to return to meet the boat on Sept. 13, a search party went out looking for him but found nothing.

Three days later, four backpackers from Seattle camped near White Thunder Ridge -- near Precup's planned campsite -- were approached by an aggressive bear. Yelling at it and banging pots and pans failed to drive it off. The campers took their food and retreated toward some cliffs. The bear entered their camp and tore it apart. It then approached them and followed them as they circled around a lake. At one point, it got within 10 feet. They shouted and threw rocks. The bear retreated, but it did not leave.

Nobody really knows what might have happened but for the arrival of two more people and an airplane that flew overhead and circled. By then there were six people in the group, and they managed to retreat to down the ridge to meet the park service boat. After they reported what had happened, another search was launched for Precup the next day.

This time rangers found his camp. It had been savaged by a bear. Nearby they found Precup's body. There wasn't much left of Precup but bones. His camera, however, was still in camp. When the film was developed, there were two photos of a grizzly. Park officials believed it to be the one that killed Precup and then stalked the other backpackers, who found safety in numbers.

Why Precup chose to take pictures instead of try to get away has been forever a mystery.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com and Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com