Learning from Bear Encounters of 2016

Eyewitness with a camera is glad bear encounter turned out safely ... this time

A woman on a tour bus with a camera and 300mm lens in June 2016 managed to capture a rare and remarkable sequence of images along the popular Savage River in Denali National Park. "It was like watching a movie play out not knowing what was going to happen next," writes Betty Snyder of Indian Lakes Estates, Florida. "This was such a once-in-a-lifetime event to witness. It could have gone very badly but with the help of the rangers and the people doing as they were told, it turned out very well."

A grizzly bear walks along a path beside a river
A small, sub-adult male grizzly bear walks along a path beside the Savage River on June 19, 2016. Wildlife biologists later determined that it was severely underweight, had a broken nose, a broken and infected left leg, and suffered a tooth deformity.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors walk a trail unaware of the presence of a grizzly bear
Visitors walking a trail along the west side of the Savage River become aware of the presence of a grizzly bear.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors become aware of the presence of a grizzly bear
Some in the group appear to react by starting to run, and the bear seems to be drawn closer.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Park rangers shout safety instructions to visitors across the Savage River during a bear encounter.
Park rangers across river shout safety instructions to the visitors.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors group together and raise their arms to appear larger during a bear encounter.
The visitors stop, group together, and raise their arms to make themselves look bigger.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors group together and raise their arms to appear larger during a bear encounter.
The bear seems to react with surprise as the group holds its ground.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors group together and raise their arms to appear larger during a bear encounter.
The bear seems to pace with nervous curiosity as the group remains collected and calm.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors group together and raise their arms to appear larger during a bear encounter.
The visitors begin to back away slowly.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Visitors back away slowly as a bear departs the area
As the visitors continue to back away slowly, the bear seems ready to leave the encounter as well.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


A grizzly bear back and shoulder are visible through brush
The bear returns to foraging by a log bench farther along the trail.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder



Visitor Bitten by Grizzly Bear in Denali National Park

Date: July 2, 2016

DENALI PARK, Alaska: A visitor was bitten and scratched by a grizzly bear on Friday evening, July 1 while hiking on the Savage Alpine Trail in Denali National Park and Preserve. Twenty-eight-year-old Fangyuan Zhou was hiking with friends when she encountered a small, subadult grizzly bear that bit and scratched her before fellow hikers were able to throw rocks and chase it off.

This incident occurred at approximately 7 pm on Friday evening on the west end of the Savage Alpine Trail. Zhou was hiking with two other people when she encountered the bear a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Several other hiking groups were also on the four mile trail. A large group of approximately 10 people had been approached by the bear a short time before Zhou's encounter, but they were able to scare it off by grouping together, shouting, and waving their arms. This action is exactly what the park encourages hikers to do when they have a close encounter with a bear.

Zhou and her friends had earlier seen the bear on the trail and were making efforts to avoid it. They all played dead when charged by the bear. The bear scratched and bit Zhou then walked away. When it returned several minutes later, a group member threw rocks at the bear, and it ran off. While playing dead is an appropriate response when physical contact with a bear occurs or is imminent, playing dead prematurely can invoke a curiosity response from a bear. Park guidelines do not recommend playing dead prior to contact.

Initial medical care was administered by NPS staff in the area. Zhou chose to self-transport to an Anchorage hospital.

The now familiar bear has been photographed by visitors and NPS staff. It has been identified as being involved in several incidents in the Savage area during the last two weeks. Previously, the bear was reported as charging visitors on Savage area trails, and it was successful in acquiring food from a day pack after charging a hiker on the Savage Alpine Trail on June 22. Subsequently, park wildlife technicians used aversive conditioning techniques (bean bags) on the bear with the hope that it was young and impressionable enough to become wary of people. The bear had not been seen during the five-day closure last week.

Park officials have intensified efforts to manage the situation. The erratic behavior of the bear over the past two weeks: approaching and charging several groups of hikers; biting and scratching a hiker; obtaining food from a hiker; and its general interest in people represents an unacceptable risk to safety in the highly visited front country of the park. Park staff will locate and kill the bear as soon as safely possible.

A visitor snaps a photo of a grizzly bear from a parking area beside the Savage River.
A visitor snaps a photo of a grizzly bear from a parking area beside the Savage River. Park regulations require visitors to maintain a minimum distance of 300 yards from grizzly bears.

Photo courtesy of Betty Snyder


Park Rangers Euthanize Chronic Problem Bear in Savage River Area

Date: July 27, 2016

DENALI PARK, Alaska: Park rangers and wildlife staff euthanized a bear that had been rewarded with human food and whose behavior and actions prompted repeated closures in the Savage River area. The last time park management killed a bear conditioned to human food was during the summer of 1980.

Wildlife staff had captured the bear using a helicopter and placed it in a culvert trap overnight. Wildlife staff initially planned to collar the bear and release it, in conjunction with aversive conditioning. However, due to the bear’s physical condition park officials determined the best course of action was to destroy the bear.

“The bear was in terrible physical condition and had a deformity,” said Dave Schirokauer, Park Resources and Science Team Leader.

Prior to its capture, the bear had sustained injuries including a broken and badly infected front left leg and a broken nose. In addition, the bear had a deformity, an extra upper-left canine tooth.

The bear was also severely underweight. A typical healthy three year-old male grizzly should weigh about 200-250 pounds. This bear weighed only 130 pounds.

Because the bear was so thin, wildlife staff could not properly fit the bear with a collar, and they determined it was unlikely a collar would have stayed on for long.

Decisions to kill wildlife are not made lightly in Denali, or any other national park, and this series of events has impacted many of the staff involved.

“We are all emotionally impacted and physically and emotionally drained by this series of events,” said Schirokauer. “Denali wildlife staff and rangers pride themselves on managing the park in a manner that is least impactful to wildlife.”

He also said it is very hard on park staff when an animal requires destruction due to human actions. “We take the loss of the bear personally. We are also not accustomed to it. It’s been 36 years since the park has killed a food-conditioned bear.”

Park staff were first alerted to this bear’s behavior early in the week of June 20 when it was reported the bear had charged vehicles in the Primrose area and charged visitors in the Savage River area along the Denali Park Road.

On June 22, the bear approached and charged several hikers on the Savage Alpine Trail. After one of the hikers threw a daypack, hoping to distract it, the bear was rewarded with human food from the pack.

Following the park’s bear management plan, the area was closed and staff used aversive conditioning techniques, including shooting the bear with bean bags. The area reopened briefly on July 1 when the bear had not been seen for five days, and it seemed the aversive conditioning techniques were successful and the bear moved away from the area.

The area was closed again that day when the bear bit and scratched a hiker on the Savage Alpine Trail. Two days later, the bear was observed in the Savage River Campground where wildlife staff hit it with bean bags. The bear ran from the area. Later that day it was discovered that the bear had damaged two tents in Savage River Campground and the campground was closed to tent camping.

When the bear had not been seen for two weeks, staff began implementing a “soft opening” plan on July 18. Several scheduled openings were delayed when staff received reports of a bear, or bears, in the area. Then park staff were able to positively identify this bear. A helicopter was called in and the bear was captured that night and euthanized the next morning.

Park officials remind everyone that the bears of Denali are wild creatures, free to behave as they wish. If annoyed, these solitary animals can be very dangerous to intruders. Visitors to bear habitat need to follow basic guidelines for their own protection, and to keep Denali bears healthy and wild:

Bear encounters are much less likely for people who hike in groups of three or more. If a bear approaches, group together and try to appear large.

Most bears prefer to avoid contact with humans so hikers should make noise, especially in areas with low visibility, so bears know there are hikers in the area.

Respect a bear’s need for personal space. Do not approach it, even to get a photo, and give it as much room as possible.

Running may elicit a chase response. Bears can run faster than 30 mph (50 km/hr). Humans cannot outrun them.
  • If a bear is unaware of you, detour quickly and quietly away. Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed.
  • If a bear is aware of you, back away slowly. 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.
Should a bear approach or charge you, do not run and 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.

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.

If a black bear makes contact with you, fight back immediately.

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.

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Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


(907) 683-9532
General park information. The phone is answered 9 am - 4 pm daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. If you reach the voicemail, please leave a message with your number and we'll call you back as soon as we finish helping the visitor on the line ahead of you.

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