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Debunking the myth of a '1600-pound man-eating grizzly' from Alaska

Craig Medred
A grizzly shot in Alaska in 2001 has refused to die on the Internet, living on as a man-eating monster -- even after reporter after reporter has tried debunk the myth. Aaron Jansen illustration

The man-eating monster Alaska bear that refuses to die in cyberspace was shot in fall 2001 on Prince William Sound's Hinchinbrook Island by a then-22-year-old airman from Eielson Air Force Base named Ted Winnen.

It was a big bear, a grizzly -- or "brown bear" as the coastal version of the species is often called -- whose hide measured 10 feet, 6 inches from head to toe. Its weight at the time was estimated at 1,000-1,200 pounds.

That's hefty, but coastal brown bears have been known to get bigger. The largest ever topped 2,000 pounds and lived out its life at the Dakota Zoo in Bismark, N.D.

The largest bears in the wilds of Alaska generally top out at about 1,500 pounds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But then, those are real bears that don't keep growing after death.

Bear myth grows and grows

Thanks to some photographs with a distorted perspective the made Winnen's bear look huge, that animal took on an afterlife of its own on the Internet and just kept growing and growing and growing after it was shot.

By the time the late Natalie Phillips, an Anchorage Daily News reporter, got around to debunking the story for the first time in fall 2001, the bear "towered 12 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 1,600 pounds." Phillips failed to do much to cut it down to size.

As the photos circulated around the Internet, the bear grew to "14 feet to the top of his head." And better yet, it became a man-eater.

"A hair-raising yarn describing this supposed man-eating monster attacking a poor hapless deer hunter accompanies the photographs" of the bear, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2008. Reporter Peter Fimrite went on to reprint a then-circulating Internet legend in full detail, complete with this graphic and shocking information:

Based on the contents of the bear's stomach, the Fish and Wildlife Commission established the bear had killed at least two humans in the past 72 hours, including a missing hiker.

The U.S. Forest Service, backtracking from where the bear had originated, found the hiker's 38-caliber pistol emptied. Not far from the pistol was the remains of the hiker. The other body has not been found.

Fimrite afterward noted that "my own wife was stunned, sending me a note saying, 'I'm happy grizzlies don't live in California.'

"Only one problem. Although the pictures are real, the story is largely hogwash."

Fimrite, like Phillips, tried to debunk the story of the man-eating monster bear. So did plenty of others over the years. The myth, however, refuses to follow the bear into the grave.

The story was back again on montanahunting.org just a few months ago under the headline "1600 lb Man Eating Grizzly Killed in Alaska."

What followed beneath the headline was the same story Fimrite tried to torpedo in 2008. It was complete right down to the wonderfully descriptive assessment of how big this bear would appear if you met it in the woods.

Think about this if you are an average size man, you would be level with the bear's belly button when he stood upright, the bear would look you in the eye when it walked on all fours! To give additional perspective, consider that this particular bear, standing on its hind legs, could walk up to an average single story house and look over the roof, or walk up to a two story house and look in the bedroom windows.

Now, that would be a big, bear. A really big bear. A  bear of mythical and horrifying proportions. And if you go to the link at Montana Hunting to read the full account of this bear, be forewarned there are graphic and horrifying photos at the end of the story. They are photos of the remains of a human reportedly mauled by a bear.

The origin of those photographs is not clear, but they appear to trace back to a bear or other wild animal attack in Russia. They were widely circulated at one time as photos of Timothy Treadwell, a would-be actor and filmmaker who spent many summers in Alaska trying to make friends with the bears before one of them killed and ate him.

The Treadwell story is true, at least the part reported after his death. Before his death, Treadwell tried to create his own, monster-bear-size personal myth before his untimely end, but it died along with him.

The bear that ate him also died. It was shot by rangers from Katmai National Park and Preserve. It was a big bear, but it did not stand 12 feet, 6 inches tall. Neither did it weigh 1,600 pounds.

Then again, Alaska bears don't have to grow that big to be dangerous. A grizzly that killed and partially consumed a hiker in Denali National Park and Preserve in the summer of 2012 was only about half the size of the bear shot in 2001 by Winnen.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com