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Wildlife

The search for the bear in the fatal Eagle River attack continues. Here’s what officials know so far.

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: July 21, 2018
  • Published July 20, 2018

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game pickup truck prepares to haul a bear trap up Hiland Road on June 20, 2018. (Matt Tunseth / Alaska Star)

State wildlife biologists are continuing to search for the brown bear sow that killed one man in Eagle River last month and injured another.

The two maulings occurred within 10 or 20 yards of each other near the end of Hiland Road. They likely happened a day or two apart, according to a statement from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday that recounted what the agency knows about the attacks and what has happened so far in its search for the sow.

The sow killed 44-year-old Michael Soltis, who went missing June 18. It's believed he went for a quick hike alone before dinner. He lived off the winding Hiland Road.

No one witnessed the fatal mauling, said the Fish and Game statement. It's unknown whether it was a predatory attack or whether it was a defensive or surprise attack that changed into predatory behavior, the statement said.

On June 20, the bear then attacked 51-year-old Paul Vasquez, one of the volunteers searching for Soltis. Fish and Game said the bear was guarding Soltis' body in a brushy area a short distance from Hiland Road, near an informal trail. The bear had cached Soltis' body, using sticks and grass to conceal it, Ken Marsh, Fish and Game spokesman, said in an interview.

"A lot of experts say that is a form of predatory behavior, basically they're claiming that body as theirs," Marsh said. That's concerning and rare behavior, he said.

The department has consulted with out-of-state experts about the bear maulings, Marsh said. The basic message: "This isn't a bear you want on your landscape."

Fish and Game will keep bear traps in the area indefinitely. The popular South Fork Eagle River trailhead, which leads to Eagle and Symphony lakes, will remain closed until further notice.

On Thursday, Fish and Game staff in a small airplane flew over the area. A helicopter also made a few passes. Neither spotted any brown bears, Marsh said.

A sign warns hikers of a trail closure due to bear activity at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead on Thursday. (Matt Tunseth / Alaska Star)

Brown bear sows typically have smaller, more defined home ranges, he said. So it's possible the bear is still in the area. It's unknown whether the sow is with cubs or not.

Wildlife biologists on July 13 shot and killed a brown bear sow and two cubs within a half-mile of the June mauling sties, not long after receiving reports of aggressive behavior by brown bears with cubs in the area. DNA analysis later determined the bears killed were not involved in the June maulings.

"Unfortunately, that was not the bear we've been looking for," Dave Battle, Anchorage area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, said in Friday's statement. "However, protecting the public is our priority, and removal of those bears will not adversely affect the overall health of the population. Although we don't have a population estimate, we believe brown bear are plentiful in the area."

Wildlife biologists considered using tranquilizer darts to capture the bears, and then collecting DNA samples from the animals and releasing them with tracking collars, the statement said. But the biologists ultimately determined that was too risky. DNA analysis can take up to a week.

"Imagine if we handled and released a bear that's already killed one person only to have it injure or kill someone else while we process DNA," Battle said. "That's an unacceptable public safety risk."

Fish and Game will continue to monitor bear activity in the area, Marsh said.

Soltis' death is the second fatal bear attack in the Municipality of Anchorage in two summers.

Last June, a 16-year-old runner was killed by a black bear during a popular mountain race at Bird Ridge. It was described as a predatory black bear attack, and the first fatal mauling in the Anchorage area in more than 20 years. State biologists later shot and killed four black bears in the area, including one they believed fatally mauled the teenager.

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