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Denali mauling proves only thing predictable about bears is their unpredictability

Craig Medred

Richard White of San Diego, Calif. went backpacking in Denali National Park and Preserve. He ran into a grizzly bear, a rather common occurrence in the 6-million-acre wilderness in the Alaska Range. This bear attacked him, a very uncommon occurrence, then killed and ate him, the most uncommon occurrence.

Let the speculation begin:

"Man Killed by Grizzly Violated Permit"

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- A San Diego man who was mauled to death by a grizzly bear in Alaska's Denali National Park may have violated a permit allowing him in the park, officials said.

The park service said White ignored safety instructions he received before heading into the Denali wilderness. Officials found photos on White's camera that showed he lingered near the bear instead of leaving the area, as required by his permit, park officials said.

First, this isn't actually what park officials have said. They have noted that photographs taken from the digital camera of the 49-year-old dead man showed he got within 50 to 100 yards of a bear shortly before he died. They have also noted that park visitors are advised to stay at least 300 yards from the bears. That doesn’t always happen.

Close quarters

Sometimes people approach the bears much closer along the Denali Park Road. Sometimes they stumble upon the bears in brush back off the road, which appears to have been the case with White. Indications are he had a chance encounter at a distance of 50 yards or so. The backpacker's reaction, as recorded by his camera, was to begin taking photographs.

Maybe he should have eased out of the area at the time. There is no doubt the best way to stay safe from bears is to avoid them, and Park Service officials have said it appears this bear was feeding on something when White first encountered it.

Most of the photos show the bear with its head down, spokeswoman Kris Fister told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. "'In the last five photos, the bear had lifted its head, noticed the backpacker, perhaps for the first time, and then looked straight at him, and started moving toward him.' '' 

It is not unusual to encounter bears in the Alaska wilderness preoccupied with going on about the bear business of summer, which amounts to nothing more than consuming as many calories as possible in preparation for winter hibernation. It is often possible to avoid these bears without their knowing you were there. That might have been possible for White. His camera indicates he spent eight minutes photographing the bear. The last five photos were taken in the space of the last 13 seconds before the camera was shut off.

Then again, this is speculation.

Nobody knows what happened after White quit taking photographs, and no one will ever know for certain the bear in the photo is the one that killed White. Even if a photographic match can be made between that bear and a bear subsequently killed by Alaska State Troopers on the food cache that contained White's body, no one will know. The Toklat River area where this happened is home to about a dozen bears.

Nobody knows where all of those bears were when White took the photos. The bear in the photos could have looked up because it finally noticed White. It could just as likely looked up because it noticed something else. Maybe it smelled another bear in the area. The bears of Denali are not exactly best friends. They live in an uneasy peace with each other. Sometimes warfare erupts. Infanticide is common in the species. Male bears kill the cubs of female bears with some regularity, apparently because of a desire to send the female into estrus and allow a breeding.

Nobody can know the situation into which White might have stumbled. He could have gotten between battling bears. Another bear could have been stalking him, rare though that is. Nobody knows.

Nobody can know what happened after he was killed, either. Bears can take a food cache from another bear -- or cache carrion. No one knows for certain when White was killed. It could have been minutes after the last photo. It could have been hours. The scenarios are endless. White could have been preoccupied quietly taking photos of a feeding bear only to have a sow with cubs walk up to him, panic and kill him.

Ignoring a simple reality

The bear in the photos could well have lifted its head and looked straight at White because he was about to be attacked by another bear. Anything could have happened, and that's the problem. It's awful easy to neglect that reality and start blaming the victim. We all want a nice simple explanation because it makes us feel safe.

"It's his fault. He was taking pictures."

Ergo, if I behave differently, I won't be attacked.

All of which ignores a simple reality. If every tourist who took a photo of a Denali grizzly from a distance of 50 yards or less was attacked, killed and eaten, deaths would be a weekly if not daily occurrence in one of the state's most popular parks. They aren't. In fact, this is the first known bear fatality in the park for 95 years. There are legions of people who've gotten way closer to bears than White did in his photographs and lived to tell about it. One of them emailed me photos the other day from New York. He'd encountered a bear in the Toklat drainage at a distance of about 50 feet. He whipped out his camera. He took pictures. He did not get attacked or mauled or eaten.

Maybe he was just lucky, or maybe White was really, really unlucky and simply got hit by an unpredictable bolt of furry, mammalian lightning.

Long stretch without fatalities

"It's actually quite amazing no one has been killed to date in Denali National Park,'' professor Tom Smith from Brigham Young University observed by email the other day. "Interestingly, that is the first death since 2004... an amazingly LONG stretch with no fatalities, considering that Alaska averaged one (death) every two years for decades."

Smith used to work in Alaska as a government scientist. He is still a regular visitor to the state. He has a summer home on an island in Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. The lake is surrounded by grizzly bears. Smith knows bears. He also knows about human encounters with bears. He put together a database on maulings and deaths in Alaska.

And what did he learn? That is probably best summed up by what he wrote about the Denali attack in his email:

"It's odd and notable, but also inexplicable.... I think, in part, it makes apparent just how little we really know about bears and people and bears.''

The reality here is that every human-bear encounter is its own experiment. There are so many variables it is impossible to recreate what exactly happened in any encounter. A human meets a bear. The human reacts. The bear reacts. And there begins a string of interconnected reactions. There are some good, general guidelines on what the best options are for people in this situation, but they are guidelines. 

What about Treadwell?

There are people who've followed the guidelines to the letter, only to be mauled. And there are people who have long ignored the guidelines, and broken many of the "rules" for dealing with bears who've never been touched. Bearman Charlie Vandergaw fed them for decades -- a total no-no -- and never got much more than scratched up a few times by his "pet'' bears, including some big grizzlies. Vandergaw might still be playing with bears if the state hadn't shut him down.

And Timothy Treadwell, a Californian with some issues, as they say, spent 13 summers hanging out with the grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve before one killed and ate him and girlfriend Amie Huguenard. Over those years, Treadwell touched bears, kissed bears, petted bears, came between sows and their cubs, and did just about everything the experts say one shouldn't do. And yet he lived until he stayed too late one fall and apparently ran into a bear needing one last good meal before hibernation.

Alaska is a wild place where the animals can still kill people as they have killed people for thousands of years. But the reality is, they don't kill many.  We kill far more of them than they do us.  And when they do kill, it might just be fate. Richard White, a husband, a father, and by all indications a hard-working and responsible citizen, didn't die because he broke any National Park Service rule. He died because he went into the Alaska wilderness to help refresh his soul, and there are dangers -- small though they might be – in doing that.

It is part of the attraction. I go there every day. My world is filled with bears. I once shot one off my leg. A neighbor emailed a heads-up this very morning to be alert for "a very large sow with two cubs close to her size on the wander. I have seen several other grizzlies in this same area this past week. So now I know where the berries 
are."

This is the way things are in Alaska. You learn to watch out for bears the way Americans learn to watch out for traffic. And you accept that no matter how well you watch out for either, there can always be that one unexpected encounter that injures or kills you.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com