ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Back-to-back fatal maulings of people by black bears in Alaska appear to be flukes by rogue animals, experts said earlier this week. But they warn that people venturing into bear habitat should always carry repellent spray or guns.
In the first attack, a black bear killed a 16-year-old runner Sunday who got lost competing in a mountain race south of Anchorage.
On Monday, a worker at a remote gold exploration site several hundred miles away was mauled to death. A second worker was injured by the same black bear.
Such predatory maulings by black bears are rare, akin to being struck by lightning, state Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said.
“To have two in two days is an anomaly,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Attacks by brown or grizzly bears are far more common, particularly in defensive actions such as when a female bear is protecting her cubs, experts said.
Now-retired state bear biologist John Hechtel tracked Alaska’s fatal bear maulings between 1980 and 2014 and counted only three fatal maulings by black bears. There were 15 killings of people by brown or grizzly bears during the same period and one fatal mauling by a polar bear.
Hechtel said he can’t say why the most recent black bear attacks occurred, given so much remains unknown. But he doesn’t believe it points to any kind of trend.
“I think it’s just a coincidence,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything related.”
The best defense against bear attacks, say Hechtel and others, is for people who head into Alaska’s back country to carry bear repellant or guns with them. Hechtel is an advocate for carrying bear repellant, however, saying it’s a safer alternative than guns for people who aren’t sharpshooters.
A nerve-wracking encounter with a black bear several years ago prompted Juneau mountain runner Dan Lesh to begin carrying bear repellant spray on his excursions.
A black bear began stalking him at Blackerby Ridge near town, coming within 30 feet of him. Then a running partner joined him, and the two made it out together. They ended up warning four arriving hikers, hiking back with them to point out the bear. The animal then began approaching the group of six, and that’s when they decided to leave the mountain.
Lesh said this week’s deaths are a key topic of conversation among Juneau runners. “It hits home,” he said.
But he quickly added he will not give up running in the wilderness. “These are low-probability events,” Lesh said.
Neither will Juneau mountain runner John Nagel. “Heck no,” he said.
Linda Pruviance lives in Anchorage part-time, volunteering at a bird viewing area south of the city that’s part of a state refuge system. She has been trained in understanding bears, and she doesn’t worry about herself. But she worries for others.
“We’re all out enjoying the outdoors. There can always be a problem, and people sometimes handle it right, sometimes they don’t handle it right,” Pruviance said while bird watching at Anchorage’s Westchester Lagoon on Tuesday with her friend, Karen Wofford, who was visiting from Santa Rosa, California.
“To me, we have so much crime in the Lower 48,” Wofford said. “I can get shot walking down my neighborhood street by a gang member, and I don’t even live in a big town, really. So to me, this just represents part of the risk of living in Alaska.”
The maulings won’t be prompting any extra protective measures in another popular mountain race in Alaska, the upcoming Independence Day Mount Marathon in Seward, about 110 miles south of Anchorage.
Organizers implemented new safety rules after a rookie competitor’s disappearance during the 2012 event. The rookie, 65-year-old Michael LeMaitre, was never found. There are bears on the mountain, but nothing to indicate he was mauled.
Since this week’s killings, organizers are not hearing from participants worried about running into bears in the upcoming 90th running of the race, said Cindy Clock, director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, the host organization.
“We’ve never had bear encounters on race day,” she said.