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Grizzly attacks, kills lone hiker in Alaska’s Denali Park

By Casey Grove, Anchorage Daily News –

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A grizzly attacked and killed a lone backpacker in Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday after the man encountered the bear next to a river and lingered there snapping pictures, according to the National Park Service.

The death is the first fatal bear mauling in Alaska in seven years and the only one in the 6 million-acre park’s recorded history, going back more than 90 years, the Park Service said.

“It’s an extremely rare event, and it’s not common that we even have injuries related to bears,” said park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin. “We don’t see a lot, and we think some of that is due to our education.”

But the man apparently ignored key parts of that education, which the Park Service says he received prior to heading into the backcountry. Photos on the victim’s camera showed he stayed near the bear, instead of leaving the area, as required by his permit, park officials said.

Now the man is dead and one bear has been killed by wildlife troopers. Worried about other bears near the body and dealing with poor weather, park rangers had still not been able to retrieve the dead man by late Saturday.

It was more than 24 hours earlier, on Friday afternoon, when a hiker found the man’s backpack on a gravel bar along the Upper Toklat River, about three miles from a rest area on a seasonal road that runs through the park, the Park Service said. Looking closer, there was evidence of a violent struggle: blood and torn clothes.

The hiker immediately headed back to the rest area and called park rangers at 5:30 p.m. Friday, McLaughlin said. A helicopter launched at 8 p.m. and landed the rangers near the backpack about 30 minutes later.

At least one bear ran into the thick brush as the helicopter hovered, said Pete Webster, Denali’s head ranger. Once they were on the ground, the rangers spotted the man’s body, which had been dragged into some bushes 100 to 150 yards from the gravel bar where the attack occurred. Webster said the remains were stashed in a “cache site,” a spot where a bear will hide and eat food.

Night was falling and the presence of multiple bears in the area made the rangers wary of trying to recover the body Friday night, according to the Park Service.

An identification card was found in the victim’s wallet, but without the remains, the Park Service said it could not positively identify the person Saturday, nor publicly release any identifying characteristics, other than to say the man was a citizen of the United States. The plan was to retrieve the body, confirm the identity, and notify next of kin before naming the person, McLaughlin said.

The rangers also found a digital camera with pictures taken just before the mauling, said Paul Anderson, the park’s superintendent. Photos on the camera and the images’ timestamps showed that he was within 50 yards of the bear for at least eight minutes, without retreating. Permitted backcountry travelers in Denali are required to stay at least a quarter-mile from bears and leave the area if they happen upon one, Anderson said.

“The photos show the bear grazing and not acting aggressively,” Anderson said.

Early Saturday, rangers, biologists and Alaska Wildlife Troopers flew in helicopters and a plane to the area, first to warn others who might be in the area, then recover the hiker’s body and track down what the Park Service described as a “predatory grizzly.”

They were fighting poor weather during the morning that worsened by afternoon, said Webster, the ranger chief. Two groups of hikers were flown out of the surrounding wilderness, and the mission turned back to recovering the body, he said.

Back at the “kill site” about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, troopers shot and killed a large male grizzly bear from a helicopter and spotted another bear that scurried away, Webster said. Both bears appeared to be defending the body as a food source, he said.

An examination of the dead bear’s stomach contents, DNA samples from both the bear and the dead man, and any of the bear’s scat in the vicinity would be clues as to whether it was the one in the fatal mauling, Webster said.

“All that we know of this bear, right now, is that at the time we were flying over the incident scene, this bear was sitting on the food cache in the brush,” he said.

Concerns about the second bear and any others at the site were still preventing the body recovery Saturday.

“The weather has deteriorated,” Webster said late Saturday. “But we’re trying tonight with one more mission to get our people in there and get the body out.”

Wildlife biologists think there are about a dozen grizzlies that come and go in the greater Toklat River area where the backpacker was killed, the Park Service said.

Though the Park Service has not yet named the victim, McLaughlin said the person whose identification was found was registered to hike in the park and received a permit, mandatory bear training and a bear-resistant food container. It was unclear if he carried bear spray or a firearm, the park officials said.

The fatal mauling is the first since 2005, when a grizzly killed an Anchorage couple in their sleeping bags inside a tent in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That attack, on Rich and Kathy Huffman, was apparently unprovoked, wildlife officials said at the time, noting that the Huffmans had a firearm and had safely stored their food. A North Slope Borough police officer later shot the bear.

A little less than two years earlier, a bear or bears killed Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in Katmai National Park. Treadwell was known as a bear advocate who lived close to bears and was seen touching them in a 2005 documentary. Two bears were later killed.

Including Friday night’s attack, brown bears and grizzly bears, a subspecies, have killed at least 15 people in Alaska in the past 40 years, according to compilations of news stories.

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