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Myth-busting an Alaska bear attack

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Ten things you could learn from the "lamestream media" about this week's Alaska bear attack -- only to be misinformed: 

1. Chicago Tribune: The bear that attacked seven teenagers in a National Outdoor Leadership School class was "massive.''

Fact check: The bear could have been "massive." Then again, maybe not. No one has a carcass to weigh or measure. Eyewitness accounts invariably inflate the size of bears. Anchorage residents have reported "500-pound" black bears on backyard decks that were later revealed to be about the size of Labrador retrievers. The probable size of this grizzly bear, based on Alaska Department Fish and Game data, is anywhere from 250 pounds on the "dainty" side to 750 pounds on the "massive" side. That is a significant margin for error, and size doesn't really matter. It was a small and undernourished grizzly that killed and then ate backpacker Alan Precup in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Monument in 1976.

2. CNN: The NOLS teenagers were mauled "by a brown bear and her cub."

Fact check: This is patently untrue. No one was mauled by a cub. Nor did anyone ever suggest a cub might have been involved in mauling anyone. It isn't even certain there was a cub on the scene.

3. FOX San Francisco affiliate KTVU-TV: The bear was a "mother."

Fact check: This is probable, but the conclusion is based largely on reported behavior of the bear and the characteristics of the attack. Mama grizzlies are known to flatten what they perceive to be a threat to their cub or cubs and then flee. That is what appears to have happened in this case. The Alaska State Troopers did report the mauling involved a sow and a cub, but there was no concrete evidence to back that up. Single male bears have been known to flatten people, too. The reality is that no one knows for sure if this bear was male or female.

4. The Sun: The bear was "guarding its cub" or "cubs."

Fact check: Again, a good guess, but by no means a fact. One of the NOLS backpackers involved in the mauling "believes" he saw a cub. The others did not, although they reported some rustling in the brush. As one authority on bears noted, however, it could be hard to tell who or what was rustling, given all the people scattering and general commotion following the bear charge. The same authority believes that if the teenagers had collected in a group, instead of scattering, the bear might have cut off the attack after knocking the first student down.

5. Associated Press: "Teen survives bear attack by kicking."

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Fact check: Victor Martin, one of the teenagers who was party to the mauling, obviously believes this. Tom Smith, a wildlife professor at the University of Utah and an authority on bears, said a human cannot begin to kick hard enough to even come close to the blows bears regularly land on each other in a bear-on-bear fight. The bears keep fighting despite those blows. There is no reason to believe a bear would stop its attack because it was kicked by a teenager. Experts on grizzly bears, in fact, advise playing dead when attacked by a sow grizzly (if this was a sow) because fighting back usually makes the attack worse. Martin also believes the bear that attacked him was "900 pounds," which according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists would make it one of the biggest sows -- if not the biggest sow -- in the Talkeetna Mountains. That is if anyone knew for certain the bear in question was a sow. If it truly was 900 pounds -- and again there is no carcass to weigh -- it most likely would have been a boar and not a sow. And that would call into question all other sorts of hypotheses (see above) about cub attacks and maternal protection.

6. Anchorage Daily News: There is a city in Alaska named Chulitna.

Fact check: False. The Daily News used a dateline of "Chulitna, Alaska" supplied by Alaska State Troopers. There is no such place. There is only the "Chultina" found on some Alaska maps. It is the site of an old Alaska Railroad stop called "Chulitna Station" like Grandview and Curry and other ghost stations.

7. New Delhi Television: The teens "were wading through a river" when attacked.

Fact check: According to NOLS leadership and on-scene observers from the Alaska National Guard, this isn't true. Troopers originally reported the teens "were conducting a river crossing in a line, one in front of the of the other" when attacked. That information was wrong and became increasingly muddled over time. The teenagers were, in fact, hiking down a stream bed with thick brush on either side. There was water running in the stream, but the teenagers were by no means wading.

8. NBC Albuquerque affiliate KOB-TV: "The attack was seven minutes (of) … sheer terror."

Fact check: The bear attack was no doubt terrifying, but no one knows how long it lasted. None of the NOLS teenagers was timing the incident. Authorities on bear attacks are skeptical it lasted more than a minute -- if that. If the grizzly was indeed a sow, its first instinct would be to get the attack over with as fast as possible, collect its cub and flee. Then again, maybe it was a 900-pound boar like one of the other victim's postulates. How KOB-TV arrived at the very precise "seven minutes," however, remains a mystery.

9. The U.K. Independent: "Maulings occur at Brooks Camp (bear school) … every few years."

Fact check: There is no bear school at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve. People who visit Brooks Camp are greeted by a National Park Service ranger who gives them a briefing on how to behave around the more than a dozen bears that converge on the river to dine on salmon. The park calls this "Bear Etiquette" training and claims it is part of the reason there has never been a serious mauling in the area. Bear researchers, in fact, have wrestled with how to explain why bear attacks are so rare at Brooks, where people and grizzlies share the trails and bears sometimes stroll through the campground. Brooks Camp has little to do with the Talkeetna Mountains. The areas are about 375 miles apart, and the grizzlies (sometimes simply called brown bears) at Brooks are well habituated to people. The bears of the Talkeetnas are less habituated and, some biologists believe, thus more prone to attack people.

10. FOX News Channel: "Seven teens mauled by a bear."

Fact check: Seven teens were in the NOLS group, but only four were mauled and only two seriously.  But what does that matter. The headline looked great over a large photo of a snarling bear.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com