Bear Attacks Hit Record High in Alaska

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

EAGLE RIVER, Alaska -- Most times, in Alaska, the bear eats you.

But this summer, in a record year for maulings, Devon Rees managed a draw with the grizzly that leapt onto him as he sauntered home between a stream brimming with salmon and the busiest highway in the state.

"Bear comes flying out, gets its fight on," said Rees, 18, nursing his wounds on the couch of his grandmother's trailer perhaps 60 yards from the scene of the Aug. 4 battle. Bandages covered puncture wounds on the inside of both his thighs, and blood seeped through the gauze around one elbow. His jeans lay in shreds on the floor. His left eye was puffy from the swat of a massive paw.

"She was moving around like a dog will when it's fighting," said the 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound Rees, who had been at a friend's house until 2 a.m. watching a movie called "Never Back Down." "It was fist to claw."

In a typical year, Rees would stand out as the Anchorage area's one and only mauling victim. These days, he's just a face in a crowd of them, notable chiefly for defying expert advice that playing dead is the best way to survive after spooking a grizzly.

At least eight Alaskans have been battered by bears this year, with three maulings in five days in early August. And though no human fatalities have been recorded, the summer of the bear is testing Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife, an evolving attitude that differs from views in the Lower 48, where grizzlies run half as large.

"Most places in Alaska don't have a persistent problem with bear or moose, because if it's anywhere near the village, they shoot it, no questions asked," said Rick Sinnott, the Alaska Fish and Game Department biologist charged with reconciling the 350,000 humans who reside around Alaska's biggest city with the wildlife who live there, too. "It's the Last Frontier mentality: You don't tolerate any risk from wild animals."

But at least until this summer, Anchorage residents were more inclined to live and let live, many residents being from "outside" and intrigued by the sight of moose wandering through the city -- as well as by the predators that stalk them.

"The joke used to be, Anchorage isn't too bad because it's only two hours from Alaska," said Sean Farley, a bear biologist with the Fish and Game Department. "The truth is, Alaska is right here. We've got bears. We got moose. We got wolves. You name it."

And this summer, a poor season for salmon has made the bears loiter longer at Anchorage streams and be less tolerant of interruption.

"If you don't get enough to eat, you get cranky," Farley said.

The first attack, on June 29, was one of the worst. Petra Davis, 15, was cycling in a marathon bike race at 1 a.m. on a trail beside a salmon stream in the city's Far North Bicentennial Park. In the darkness, with the wind whipping the cottonwood trees, she may have careened broadside into a mama grizzly. It chewed through her bike helmet, crushed her trachea and cut into her shoulder, torso, buttocks and thigh.

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