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Alaska bear attack: Did NOLS students stumble on grizzly food cache?

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published August 1, 2011

What if the main thing everyone thought they knew about a grizzly bear attack July 23 on a group of seven students from the National Outdoor Leadership School was wrong?

Up until now, it has been presumed that the attack involved the classic situation of a sow defending her cubs, though there is little evidence to support that conclusion. Only one student reported seeing what he thought was a cub.

The others reported only some rustling in the thick brush around the scene of the attack. And wildlife biologist Tom Smith, who has spent years studying and observing bears, noted last week that none of the students reporting hearing a cub or cubs bawling during an attack that -- based solely on the damage done to the bear's teenage victims -- went on for an unusually long time.

The Talkeetna grizzly first grabbed 17-year-old Joshua Berg, of New York, and worked him over so badly that he was still in the hospital a week later. The bear cut off its attack on Berg only to chase after 17-year-old Samuel Gottsegen, who was fleeing. The bear knocked him down. It grabbed him by the skull, which is normal bear behavior, and ripped wide open the flesh on his head. Then it bit him in the chest, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lung. Gottsegen, like Berg, spent days in the hospital, but is now out. After this, the bear attacked two other teenagers.

Most of the NOLS students have now talked about the attack, and all but the still-recovering Berg have been interviewed by NOLS officials conducting an internal investigation of the incident. Berg could hold crucial information. While being treated in the field, he told Alaska Air National Guard pararescue specialist Sgt. Brandon Stuemke that he came around a bend on a brush-lined creek and saw ahead what he took to be hay bales or hay piles.

Berg was first in line among the students walking down the semi-dry creek bed. The general belief at the time of the attack was that what Berg saw was not a hay pile, but a golden or blonde-colored sow grizzly and her cub. No one harvests hay in the Alaska wild, so there would be no hay or hay piles there.

But as several Alaska wildlife biologists have since pointed out that it is possible to encounter something that looks a lot like a hay pile in the Alaska wilderness: A bear's food cache.

If a bear is lucky enough to kill a big animal like a moose, it will eat what it can, and then cover the remains with whatever it can dig up to help protect its bounty from scavengers. In grassy areas, bears have been known to tear up circles of grass 50 to 100 feet wide. What they tear up, they pile atop the carcasses. If they tear up a lot of grass and pile it atop the carcass, the result -- once the grass dries -- starts to look at lot like a hay pile.

These sorts of hay piles are about the deadliest thing anyone can walk into in the Alaska bush. Bears will kill to defend their food caches.

Similar to the Anchorage bear attack of 1995?

One of the worst bear attacks in Alaska history happened just outside of Anchorage in 1995 when well-known local runners Marcie Trent, 77, and Larry Waldron, 45, were on a hike along the McHugh Creek Trail to Rabbit Lake with Trent's then 14-year-old grandson Art Abel. The group walked onto a moose that had been killed by a grizzly, and the bear attacked to defend its kill. Both Trent and Waldron died.

Abel, the only survivor, didn't know exactly what happened at first. He heard his grandmother scream and then saw something running through the brush. He ran up the trail to get close to Waldron, his uncle. Waldron told Able to climb a tree for safety and wait, then Waldon went to look for his mother-in-law. It cost him his life.

Abel stayed up the tree until another hiker came along. Abel called for help. He still didn't know what had happened. When he came down from the tree, he told the hiker he thought his grandmother had been attacked by a moose -- something that happens in Alaska with some regularity -- and that his uncle had gone to help her.

The hiker, who has never been identified, then went on up the trail with Abel. They heard moans, which led them to Waldron. He was bleeding but still alive. He told them Trent had been attacked by a bear, and that when he went to help her, he was attacked.

Other hikers coming up the trail tried to rescue Waldron, but his injuries were so severe he did not survive. It was the same for Trent.

Don’t mess with a bear’s dinner

Biologist Tom Smith, a professor at the University of Utah who spent years at the Alaska Science Center conducting bear research for the U.S. Geological Survey, noted the fury with which bears will defend food caches. He, like some others, is wondering if the hay bales or hay piles Berg reported seeing could have been a food-cache and a light-colored grizzly bear atop that the cache.

Bears will sometimes nap on top of their piles just to be doubly sure their food is protected.

Encountering something like this is the Alaska wilderness equivalent of stepping on a land mine.

Some of the NOLS students involved in the July 23 attack have already come under criticism for running when they first saw the bear. Berg was the first to turn and flee, which appears to have set off a chain reaction. In general, the advice on dealing with grizzlies in Alaska is to stand your ground and make yourself as big as possible.

That advice, however, does not apply to all situations, and if the NOLS students did stumble upon a bear cache, running might not have been a bad idea. Smith and other authorities on bears noted that in that circumstance you might want to put as much distance as possible between yourself and the food the bear is trying to defend.

That's if Berg stumbled into a food cache. But nobody can say for certain that Berg stumbled into a sow and her cubs either.

No Alaska agency investigates bear attacks

The sow and cub narrative came from the Alaska State Troopers, which never saw a sow and cubs. The agency assumed the easy explanation for an aggressive bear. Sows with cubs are notorious for rushing and flattening hikers.

Lem Butler, the Talkeetna area biologist for the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said his staff did a fly-over of the general area after the attack but saw no bears.

Butler added that he isn't even sure Fish and Game had good coordinates for the site of the attack.

No Alaska agency investigates bear attacks. Butler said he'd like to put a biologist on the ground in the area of this attack to find out exactly what happened, but he doesn't have the budget for it.

Investigators would need to fly in on a helicopter, and helicopter time in Alaska is expensive. It would cost upwards of $600 an hour for a helicopter out of Palmer, where Butler's staff is based. A flight to and from the Talkeetna Mountains, where the attack took place, plus time spent on the ground, would take several hours. Costs would easily end up over $1,000, possibly into the thousands. And there is a significant likelihood that even with boots on the ground, no one would find much.

Butler, like a lot of other biologists, said he'd like to know a whole lot more about what happened in this attack, but he probably won't. As with others, however, he noted this sow's ferocity seemed a little odd. Many Alaska grizzly attacks do involve defensive sows, but those bears seldom do the damage that was done to the NOLS students in the Talkeetnas.

When Clivia Feliz was attacked by a sow grizzly in Anchorage's Far North Bicentennial Park in 2008, it knocked her down, bit her arm and her torso, and then fled with its cub.

The bear could easily have stayed and killed Feliz, but it didn't. The story was the same when Sarah Wallmer was attacked in 2007 by a sow with a cub near the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park on the edge of Anchorage. She suffered relatively minor injuries. The bear knocked her down, bit her in the butt, and then fled.

Again, it was similar in 1998 when Blaine Smith, a wilderness guide, was attacked near the Nature Center. He was flattened, but the bear fled without attacking his wife. The bear was apparently more interested in getting its cub away than beating up on people.

Bear in Talkeetna attack highly aggressive

That was not the case in the Talkeetnas. After attacking Berg and Gottsegen and inflicting serious damage, that bear didn't stop. It chased after two other fleeing students and took down both 16-year-old Noah Allaire from Albuquerque and 18-year-old Victor Martin from the San Francisco Bay area. After flattening Allaire, the bear bit him in the head. After flattening Martin, it chomped on his leg.

Both of those teens also required medical treatment after being rescued by troopers and the Alaska National Guard. Biologist Smith, who now spends his summers on an island in a lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge surrounded by bears, said the extent of the attack on the NOLS group certainly does grab one's attention.

Smith has compiled a database on Alaska bear attacks and worked with Canadian Stephen Herrero, the well-known author of "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," in the development of a database for all North American bear attacks. Never, Smith said, has there been an attack on four or more people that ended with four injured.

The situation in the Talkeetnas is unique, however, given the bear might not have known it was facing a group.

From the descriptions provided by the seven teenagers involved, Smith said, this attack sounds more like a "sequential mauling" than an attack on a group of people. Nonetheless, the behavior of the bear, combined with Berg's observations, does make one wonder, he said.

Three weeks before the attack in the Talkeetnas, a sow grizzly did kill a hiker in Yellowstone National Park, but the death of 57-year-old Californian Brian Matayoshi came quickly in the frenzy of the sow's original rush. The bear investigated Matayoshi's hiking companion and wife, Marilyn, but did not hurt her. The couple had seen the bear with a cub and fled.

"The couple began running, but the bear caught up with them, attacking Mr. Matayoshi," the National Park Service reported. "The bear then went over to Mrs. Matayoshi, who had fallen to the ground nearby. The bear bit her daypack, lifting her from the ground and then dropping her. She remained still and the bear left the area."

That is more the norm for sow grizzlies. The Park Service's warning to visitors after the Matayoshi attack was to "hike in groups of three or more people."

Grizzlies tend to not attack groups

In a peer-reviewed study of bear attacks in British Columbia, Herrero and colleague Andrew Higgins noted that for almost three decades -- 1960 to 1997 -- more than 80 percent of the people injured by grizzlies were traveling alone or with a partner, adding that "there were no recorded injuries inflicted by a bear to groups of six or more people."

They theorized that large groups were safer in part because they made more noise traveling through the country, thus alerting bears to both their presence and their size.

The NOLS students have all said they were making noise moving through the brush in the Talkeetnas, but it remains unclear as to whether they were close enough together to constitute a "group." The distance between them as they hiked through dense brush might have eliminated the element of group safety.

But Smith and most other bear biologists are of the opinion that if the students had grouped up -- instead of scattering -- once the bear attack began, they might have been able to reduce the number of injuries. Smith also admits that this is a lot easier to say than to do. In the panic of the moment, he said, the instinctive reaction is to flee.

It is an instinct hikers traveling with others in bear country should try to avoid. No matter the circumstances, biologists all agree, groups of people are far more intimidating to a bear than individuals.

The death of Alan Precup in the Glacier Bay National Monument in 1976 is the classic case in point.

Precup was killed and eaten by a predatory grizzly. The bear then stalked a group of four people, but retreated when they began shouting and throwing rocks at it.

None of them suffered any injuries even though they, too -- like the NOLS students -- at one point ran from the bear. It chased, but did not attack.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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