Ever since grizzly bears killed and ate Tim Treadwell and Amie Huguenard last
October, speculation has been rife about why this happened. Critics often blame
Treadwell's unusually close association with bears and apparent neglect of normal
Some of these same factors also are blamed for the recent death and consumption
of Russian naturalist Vitaly Nikolayenko. He, like Treadwell, spent years interacting
with coastal grizzlies, getting to know them personally and making extensive
film records of their behavior.
Working on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, Nikolayenko took precautions that
Treadwell did not, such as carrying pepper spray. Yet, Nikolayenko pushed the
safety envelope just as hard in other ways. Indeed, getting too close and personal
is apparently what killed Nikolayenko.
This may be especially dangerous during fall and winter, when bears are least
tolerant of interference with their foraging to accumulate fat for hibernation,
and when non-hibernating bears may be especially predatory.
A new report on Treadwell and Huguenard by the National Park Service "technical
board of investigation" provides few novel insights into why they died, if only
because those authorities had little new evidence to work from. Neither the National
Park Service nor the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has had access either
to findings by Alaska State Troopers, who first investigated these deaths, or
to Treadwell's diary and video footage of events that preceded or accompanied
the maulings. These items have been temporarily sequestered by Treadwell's estate.
Hopefully, copies of the diary and tape will soon be lent to bear experts for
analysis as was probably intended by Treadwell. During my own research on bear
behavior, I try to videotape every tense encounter in hopes of leaving a record
of what happened in case I fail to defuse the situation.
Based on my conversations with Tim this past summer, I believe he did the same
thing which is why his camcorder was running when he left his tent to confront
the intruding bear than ended up killing him. Had his camcorder been sealed against
rain and cold, he might have been carrying the instrument with him.
People are mauled by animals only during close encounters. Separation keeps people
safe. So separation is a key to conventional measures to minimize aggression
and property damage by bears.
Excellent instruction on avoiding encounters is provided by pamphlets available
from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or from the Audubon Society office
in Anchorage. There are also several good videos and books on the subject, including
my own manual, "Alaska's Most Dangerous Game: Living Safely With Bears, Moose
and Other Hazardous Wildlife."
Avoidance suffices for keeping most people safe under most circumstances. But
it does not suffice for bear viewers and photographers who, like Tim, often want
to be as close as is safe for more spectacular shots and for a greater sense
of intimacy with the animals.
When close encounters cannot or will not be avoided, one must learn how to behave
at close quarters to pacify defensive bears or to intimidate and dissuade offensive
bears. "Alaska's Most Dangerous Game" addresses this in unique detail based on
hundreds of personal encounters.
Teachers or parents seeking instruction for K-12 students should contact me through
the Bear Viewing Association (260-9059), Derek Stonorov through the Anchorage
office at the Audubon Society (276-7034), or Larry Lewis through the Department
of Fish and Game in Soldotna (262-9368).
All three of us also provide training for adults, including teachers. Larry offers
the best training in this region on using firearms against bears and moose. I
teach Bears and Bear Safety (nicknamed "Grizzly 101" by Channel 2 News) at the
Kenai and Seward campuses of the University of Alaska Anchorage each Monday evening
from 7 to 10 p.m. and at the Mat-Su campus during two weekends in April. A bear
safety certificate is awarded to anyone passing my course with honors. Stonorov's
course is sometimes offered at the Homer campus.
KPC's spring semester starts Monday. Sign up now!
Dr. Stephen F. Stringham, who lives in Soldotna, is a professor at the University
of Alaska, director of the Bear Viewing Association, president of WildWatch
Consulting and author of two books on living safely with bears. He was one
of the first biologists to study bears at Katmai and has spent much of
the past 30 years learning how to read a bear's mood and intentions, so
that dangerous encounters can be avoided or resolved without harm to people