Back-to-back fatal maulings of people by black bears in Alaska appear to be flukes by rogue animals, experts said on Tuesday, but warned that people venturing into bear habitats should always carry repellent spray or guns.
In the first attack, a black bear on Sunday killed a 16-year-old runner who got lost competing in a mountain race south of Anchorage.
On Monday, a worker at a remote gold exploration site several hundred kilometers 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, Alaskan Department of 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 cannot say why the most recent black bear attacks occurred, given so much remains unknown.
However, he does not 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 is for people who head into Alaska’s backcountry to carry bear repellent or guns with them, Hechtel and others said.
However, Hechtel is an advocate for carrying bear repellent, saying it is a safer alternative than guns for people who are not sharpshooters.
A nerve-wracking encounter with a black bear several years ago prompted Juneau mountain runner Dan Lesh to begin carrying bear repellent spray on his excursions. A black bear began stalking him at Blackerby Ridge near town, coming within 9m of him. Then a running partner joined him and the two made it out together.
This week’s deaths are a key topic of conversation among Juneau runners, Lesh said.
“It hits home,” he said.
However, he quickly added that he would not give up running in the wilderness.
“These are low-probability events,” Lesh said.
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