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San Diego man dies in Denali grizzly attack

Casey Grove
Google Earth image courtesy of Denali National Park

A grizzly attacked and killed a lone backpacker in Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday after the man encountered the bear next to a river and lingered there snapping pictures, according to the National Park Service.

The death is the first fatal bear mauling in Alaska in seven years and the only one in the 6-million-acre park's recorded history, going back more than 90 years, the Park Service said.

"It's an extremely rare event, and it's not common that we even have injuries related to bears," said park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin. "We don't see a lot, and we think some of that is due to our education."

But the man -- identified late Saturday as 49-year-old San Diego, Calif., resident Richard White -- apparently ignored key parts of that education, which the Park Service says he received prior to heading into the Denali wilderness, in part of the park where there are no trails. Photos on White's camera showed he stayed near the bear, instead of leaving the area, as required by his permit, park officials said.

Alaska Wildlife Troopers assisting park rangers shot a large male grizzly Saturday believed to have killed White and cached his body the day before, the Park Service said. The rangers had been unable to recover White's remains for more than 24 hours, but retrieved him late Saturday, a park spokeswoman said.

It was Friday afternoon, when three hikers on a day trip found White's backpack on a gravel bar along the Upper Toklat River, about three miles from a rest area of the seasonal road that runs through the park, the Park Service said. Looking closer, there was evidence of a violent struggle: blood and torn clothes.

The hikers immediately headed back to the rest area and called park rangers at 5:30 p.m. Friday, McLaughlin said. A helicopter launched at 8 p.m. and landed the rangers near the backpack about 30 minutes later.

It was next to a gravel bar, out in the open near the braided river's edges. Not far away, where the terrain became more rugged, was heavy brush and more secluded areas, McLaughlin said.

At least one bear ran into the brush as the helicopter hovered, said Pete Webster, Denali's head ranger. Once they were on the ground, the rangers spotted the body, which had been dragged into some bushes 100 to 150 yards from where the attack occurred. Webster said the remains were stashed in a "cache site," a spot where a bear will hide and eat food.

Night was falling and the presence of multiple bears in the area made the rangers wary of trying to recover White's body Friday night, according to the Park Service.

The rangers also found a digital camera with pictures taken just before the mauling, said Paul Anderson, the park's superintendent.

Photos on the camera and the images' timestamps showed that White was within 50 yards of the bear for at least eight minutes, without retreating. Permitted backcountry travelers in Denali are required to stay at least a quarter-mile from bears and leave the area if they happen upon one, Anderson said.

"The photos show the bear grazing and not acting aggressively," Anderson said.

Early Saturday, rangers, biologists and Alaska Wildlife Troopers flew in helicopters and a plane, first to warn others who might be in the area, then recover White's body and track down what the Park Service described as a "predatory grizzly."

They were fighting poor weather during the morning that worsened by afternoon, said Webster, the ranger chief. Two groups of hikers were flown out of the surrounding wilderness, and the mission turned back to recovering the body, he said.

Back at the "kill site" about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, troopers shot and killed a large male grizzly bear from a helicopter and spotted another bear that scurried away, Webster said. Both bears appeared to be defending the body as a food source, he said.

Shards of White's clothing and other material linking the bear that troopers shot to the deadly attack were found during an examination of the bear's stomach contents, said Park Service spokeswoman Kris Fister late Saturday. That, along with photographs of the same bear on White's camera, was evidence the bear shot by troopers was the bear that killed White, Fister said.

Wildlife biologists think there are about a dozen grizzlies that come and go in the greater Toklat River area where the backpacker was killed, the Park Service said.

According to the Park Service, White was registered to hike in the park and received a permit, mandatory bear training and a bear-resistant food container. It was unclear if he carried bear spray or a firearm, the park officials said.

The fatal mauling is the first in Alaska since 2005, when a grizzly killed an Anchorage couple in their sleeping bags inside a tent in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That attack, on Rich and Kathy Huffman, was apparently unprovoked, wildlife officials said at the time, noting that the Huffmans had a firearm and had safely stored their food. A North Slope Borough police officer later shot the bear.

A little less than two years earlier, a bear or bears killed Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in Katmai National Park.

Treadwell was known as a bear advocate who lived close to bears and was seen touching them in a 2005 documentary. Two bears were later killed. Including Friday's attack, brown bears and grizzly bears, a subspecies, have killed at least 15 people in Alaska in the past 40 years, according to compilations of news stories.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News