Two Bear Incidents This Week in Denali

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Date: June 24, 2016
Contact: Pat Owen, (907) 683-9547
Contact: Kathleen Kelly, (907) 683-9504

Two incidents this past week are prompting Denali National Park and Preserve staff to remind visitors to use caution and practice proper behavior in bear habitat.

The Savage Alpine Trail, the Savage River Loop Trail and both Savage River parking lots are currently closed to keep the area free of visitors while park wildlife technicians try aversive conditioning techniques to teach a bear in the area to avoid approaching humans.

Early this week a small, subadult grizzly bear charged vehicles near the Primrose area and chased visitors in the Savage River area along the Denali Park Road.

On Wednesday afternoon the same bear approached and charged several hikers on the Savage Alpine Trail.

One hiker threw a daypack, hoping to distract the bear, and the bear immediately broke into the pack, played with it and consumed at least two candy bars and bottles of soda pop.

Park staff responded soon after and hiked the trail to assess the situation and clear the trail of visitors. The bear eventually left the area with the pack. Park rangers found and cleaned up the food remains and other items. Hikers on the trail recovered the pack and gave it to park staff.

The area will remain closed until further notice, no backcountry permits will be issued for the area and campers at the Savage River Campground are being advised to use extra caution at this time.

According to Dave Schirokauer, Resources and Science Team Leader for Denali National Park, this situation is very serious because the bear was rewarded and may have learned to associate humans with food.

Park wildlife technicians are in the area searching for the bear. If they locate the bear and the opportunity arises, they will try to recreate the situation and use aversive conditioning techniques, such as firing paint balls, bean bags and rubber bullets. The hope is the bear is impressionable enough to become wary of people.

Park officials are reminding everyone, the bears of Denali are wild creatures, free to behave as they wish. If annoyed, these solitary animals can be very dangerous to intruders. For your own protection, and to keep Denali bears healthy and wild, please carefully read and abide by these rules:

  • Make noise
  • Most bears prefer to avoid contact with humans so make noise, especially in areas with low visibility, so the bears know you are in the area.
  • Stay at least 300 yards away from any bear
  • Respect the bear’s need for personal space. Do not approach it, even to get a photo, and give it as much room as possible.
  • Do not run
  • Running may elicit a chase response. Bears can run faster than 30 mph (50 km/hr). You cannot outrun them. If the bear is unaware of you, detour quickly and quietly away. Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. Back away slowly if the bear is aware of you. Speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head. Bears that stand up on their hind legs are not threatening you, but merely trying to identify you.
  • Hold your ground
  • Should a bear approach or charge you, do not run; do not drop to your pack. Bears will sometimes charge, coming within feet of a person before stopping or veering off. Dropping a pack may encourage the bear to approach people for food. Stand still until the bear moves away, then slowly back off.
  • Play dead if contacted by a grizzly
  • If a grizzly makes contact with you, play dead. Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach and your hands laced around the back of your neck. Leave your pack on to protect your back. Statistically, most grizzly bear attacks are short, defensive reactions by grizzlies feeling threatened. However, if the attack is prolonged, fight back vigorously.
  • Fight back against black bears
  • If a black bear makes contact with you, fight back.
  • Report all bear incidents and encounters to a ranger. Park rangers and biologists need this information to document bear behavior for research and management purposes.

Yesterday, an Aramark-Doyon employee, who works in the park as a bus driver, was bitten by a grizzly sow with cubs. The hiker, identified as Phil Buchanan, was hiking in the early afternoon, to the north of the Park Road, near Mile 8, in heavy shrubbery when he heard one of the cubs, “shriek.”

Almost immediately, Buchanan told park rangers, he saw the cub’s mother, who charged him. Buchanan acted appropriately and stood his ground, he said, however the sow dove at his feet and bit him in his left calf. He also sustained an injury below his left rib cage. Buchanan curled up into the fetal position and played dead. He remained in that position for five minutes once the attack was over.

According to Schirokauer, this is typical defensive behavior by the sow, she was likely surprised and felt threatened, and then protected her cubs. The fact that she moved on almost immediately when Buchanan posed no threat to her or her cubs and she showed no interest in his pack, despite his having food with him, indicates this bear poses no more threat to visitors than any other female grizzly bear with cubs in the park.

Buchanan hiked about two hours before he reached the Park Road and flagged down another visitor in a vehicle for help. He said it took him longer than expected to reach the Park Road because he was looking for a safer place to walk, an open area with no shrubs along a ridge line and then a creek bed, so he could see the bear if she returned.

Buchanan was treated for his injuries at the Denali Canyon Clinic and then was transferred to a hospital in Fairbanks.

Last updated: June 30, 2016

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


(907) 683-9532
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