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‘Really odd’: 2 fatal maulings in 2 days by Alaska black bears

A sign alerts park users that the Bird Ridge trail is closed, Monday June 19, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Patrick Cooper died Sunday as the 16-year-old came down Bird Ridge near Anchorage following a mountain race, the victim of an unusual fatal attack involving a black bear.

A day later, a Pogo Mine contract employee in the Interior was killed — also by a black bear.

Experts say fatal maulings by black bears in Alaska are rare.

Until the past few days, only six deaths had been linked to black bears in 130 years, according to a biologist compiling a report on Alaska bear attacks since 1880.

The sequence of events leading to Cooper's death is unknown beyond a text message he sent to a relative, saying he was being chased by a bear as he descended after finishing the 1.5-mile juniors division course of the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb.

A state park ranger shot a black bear found near Cooper's body but the animal ran off.

Little information was available Monday about the attack on the Pogo contractor that left a second contract employee injured.

If black bears are found responsible for both deaths, it represents only the second time in recent history that black bears have killed someone in Alaska.

The last was Robert Weaver, a 64-year-old Fairbanks man who died following a black bear attack at his cabin near Delta Junction in 2013.

Black bears accounted for just 10 percent of bear attacks in Alaska dating back to 1880, according to reports compiled by two biologists working separately.

"The black bear — that's really odd," said Tom Smith, an associate professor at Brigham Young University who's studied bears since he worked as a biologist at Katmai National Park in 1992.

Experts say Cooper's death was all too common, however, in that it involved someone hurt or killed by bears while running, hiking or backpacking.

About 42 percent of the 207 people attacked by bears from 1980 to 2015 were recreating in bear country, according to a tally from retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game bear biologist John Hechtel. Another 28 percent were hunting and 2 percent fishing.

Brown bears killed 15 people in that 35-year period, according to Hechtel. Black bears killed three. Black bears attack only about once every other year in Alaska, statistics show.

While black bear attacks are far less common than brown or grizzly bear encounters, black bears tend to be more "predatory," said Smith, who lives in Utah but still has property on the Kenai Peninsula's Skilak Lake. He warns family to worry about black bears that don't respond to shouting and other scare tactics.

Generally, experts break down bear attacks into two broad categories: defensive and predatory.

Defensive attacks — bears feel threatened or want to protect their young — include the classic example of someone rounding a corner and running into a sow bear with cubs. Bears tend to huff, paw at the ground or even make small rushes at the person.

"It's a fear reaction," Hechtel said. "They may knock a person around a couple times and run off."

A predatory attack could come from a hungry bear, one that sees a human as prey, or if something the person does — like running away — triggers a bear's prey response. Bears may walk quietly toward people without looking agitated.

"Those tend to be more serious because the bear, if it knocks the person down or does stuff, it's not going to run away and leave," he said.

Smith adds that bears, like people, can exhibit a range of personalities.

"Some are very shy," he said. "Some, guaranteed, if they think they can take you out, they will do that."

Both men are fans of pepper spray as a deterrent.

Smith, with renowned bear researcher Stephen Herrero and several others, wrote a 2012 article finding no significant difference in Alaska bear encounters when people used guns versus pepper spray, and suggesting that only people proficient in the use of firearms should use them for bear protection.

Hechtel said he's found that the close-up range of bear spray can encourage people to stand their ground during a bear attack instead of panicking.

He offered several tips: Stop moving. Have bear spray ready. Talk calmly, especially if it's clear the bear is in defensive mode. If the bear appears predatory, yell or throw wood or rocks at it.

"The simple message of simply playing dead is way oversold," he said, though in some cases it's necessary, like if you're knocked to the ground or have no deterrent.

"The longer you stand there, even if it's running toward you, the greater chance the bear will stop short or go around," he said. "It's a hard thing for people to do."

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