Biologist Believes Errors Led to Attack

BEARS: Californians' choices may have contributed to fatal encounter


Craig Medred / Anchorage Daily News / October 10, 2003

 

Human remains and clothing found in the stomach of a 28-year-old brown bear killed by National Park Service rangers Monday have confirmed that the animal fed on the bodies of California animal activist Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard, authorities reported Thursday.
Fresh details about the attack near Kaflia Bay in Katmai National Park on Alaska's southwest coast also began to emerge.

According to a memo from Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele, Treadwell set up his bear-viewing camp "in such a way that bears wishing to traverse the area would have had to either wade in the lake or walk right next to the tent. A person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp.''

In videos found at the scene, Van Daele said, Treadwell described "his campsite as (in) a potentially dangerous location, but he expresses his confidence that he understands these bears and they will not harm him.''

On Wednesday, Fish and Game dispatched Van Daele -- author of a book on the history of the brown bears on Kodiak Island and an authority on the half-ton coastal cousins of the grizzly bear -- to Kaflia to investigate what is believed to be the first deadly bear attack in Katmai park history.

"What caused this individual bear to kill and eat humans is unknown,'' Van Daele concluded. "It was very old but not in remarkably poor condition.''

Most likely, the biologist said, there was a chance encounter between the people and the bear that resulted in the bear attacking and the situation worsening from there. Though authorities who arrived on scene Wednesday found two bears competing to eat the carcass of an adolescent bear also killed by rangers on Monday, Van Daele stressed that he saw nothing to indicate "strange bear behavior occurring in the area.''

Alaska brown bears commonly scavenge any mammal carcasses they find, but attacks on humans are rare and cases of brown bears actually eating humans are so uncommon that even calling them rare would be an overstatement.

Audubon Society biologist John Schoen and other experts on Alaska grizzly and brown bears on Thursday pointed out that Treadwell's proclivity for trying to get close to Alaska bears for more than a decade illustrates nothing so much as the bears' amazing tolerance for humans. The self-proclaimed former drug addict and eco-warrior from Malibu, Calif., regularly approached bears on his summer sojourns here, often easing to within feet of them while talking to them in a sing-song voice.

On videotape recovered at Treadwell's camp, Van Daele said, there is more evidence of this potentially dangerous behavior.

One "video shows Ms. Huguenard within 3 meters (10 feet) of a sow with cubs as they fish,'' Van Daele wrote.

"One of the cubs came even closer to her while (Treadwell) filmed. She seemed uncomfortable but did not move. Some journal entries suggest that she was not as comfortable with the situation as he was. One of the last of his journal entries described his dismay as a large, adult male fought with one of his (Treadwell's) favorite sows near the camp.''

Such fights among bears are not uncommon, particularly late in the year when the bears are scrambling to put on as much fat as possible before winter. A poor berry crop this year and tapering salmon runs would only compound the situation, said Van Daele, who noted that the smaller brown bear killed in the area by park rangers and Alaska State Troopers on Monday had been largely eaten by other bears by Wednesday.
Rangers, troopers and Fish and Game biologists had to drive one bear off what was left of the carcass and shoo away another lurking in the alders nearby in order to investigate Treadwell's camp. They literally battled their way in, firing firecracker shells and using the whoop-whoop-whooping of a helicopter overhead to drive the animals away and keep them away.

From what was found at the campsite in this bear-infested area, and other information, Van Daele said he developed a theory on how Treadwell and Huguenard might have died on Sunday night.

"We will never know exactly what happened, and it is somewhat risky to speculate,'' he warned, but in effort to lend some sense to what happened, he offered this hypothesis based on journals, videotapes and evidence at the scene.

"The most telling piece of information is an audio recording made during the actual bear attack. This goes on for about six minutes and starts with (Treadwell) outside of the tent investigating a bear that came into camp. It was obviously raining very hard at the time and seems to have been twilight or evening, judging from some comments.

"The bear attacks (Treadwell), and he calls for help. Ms. Huguenard opens the tent fly and is very upset. At her urging, he 'plays dead.' It sounds like the bear then retreated for a couple minutes but returned. It again went after him, and he begged her to hit it with something. She in turn screamed for him to fight. The audio ends with his sounds no longer evident and her screams continuing.

"Based on all the evidence, I would guess that this old, large boar had been hanging around the areas getting the last fish of the season. There was little else available to eat, and he competed with the sow for food. Although not in bad condition, he needed more fat for the winter.

"That evening, probably Sunday night, (the male) was walking along a major bear trail and walked by the tent. When he encountered Mr. Treadwell, the bear reacted and either bit him and/or hit him. When he 'played dead,' the bear left, but as is often the case, when Mr. Treadwell started moving again, and/or Ms. Huguenard came to his aid, the bear returned.

"At this time, for some reason, the bear killed and ate him. I suspect that Ms. Huguenard's screams, which sound eerily like a predator call, may have prompted the bear to return and kill her. He then cached her body to be eaten later.''

A predator call is a device hunters use to lure foxes, coyotes and wolves into rifle range. It has a high-pitched tone meant to imitate the call of an injured animal. The calls have been known to attract bears in Alaska.

The old boar that fed upon Treadwell and Huguenard -- and is likely the one that killed them both -- was estimated to weigh more than 1,000 pounds and had broken canine teeth. Van Daele doesn't think the other bear that rangers shot at the scene Monday, an apparent 3-year-old, had anything to do with the killings. That bear's stomach, along with most of its carcass, had already been consumed by other bears.

"In my assessment,'' Van Daele added at the end of a five-page memo, "Mr. Treadwell's actions leading up to the incident, including his behavior around bears, his choice of a campsite and his decision not to have any defensive methods or bear deterrents in the camp, were directly responsible for this catastrophic event.''

Treadwell had carried bear-repelling spray for self-protection when he first began coming to Alaska to commune with the bears but had stopped carrying it in recent years. The founder of Grizzly People, an organization for bear lovers, Treadwell didn't believe it was right to spray bears with the irritating pepper spray -- even if it caused no long-term injuries to the bears.

"He just felt that was an invasive, aggressive mechanism that translated into a kind of attitude. He didn't want to have that attitude,'' said friend Joel Bennett, a Juneau filmmaker. "He kind of wanted to resign himself to whatever happened.''
Daily News Outdoor Editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedre d@adn.com .


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