"Alaskans on edge" after two deadly bear attacks in one week

Published: Jun. 24, 2017 at 9:41 PM AKDT
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Since the deadly mauling at Bird Ridge, state officials said they’re seeing less traffic on the trails at Chugach State Park.

“I think people were somewhat avoiding the area after the mauling,” said state park ranger Tom Crockett.

Crockett closed down the Bird Ridge trailhead on Sunday evening, but said after he reopened the trail on Thursday, the parking lots have been less full than a typical summer week.

“There wasn't a single car in the parking lot [on Thursday,] and only a few in the adjoining parking at Bird Ridge,” said Crockett.

By Saturday, the sunny weather brought more trail users to Chugach State Park, but many said they were taking extra precautions on their hike after hearing reports of the deadly bear mauling of 16-year-old trail runner Patrick Cooper on Sunday, as well as the fatal bear mauling of 27-year-old Erin Johnson near Delta Junction on the following day.

“I just have to go, and just hope for the best,” said Suzanne Knudsen, as she trekked up Bird Ridge on Saturday with a can of bear spray on one shoulder strap and a .44 bear gun on the other.

Knudsen said she was the victim of a brown bear attack near Bird Creek in 2014. It’s taken her some time to work up the courage to get back on the trails.

“I raised three kids here and I was not worried about them, but now I'm nervous about my grandkids coming to visit me,” said Knudsen, noting that she believes more bears have populated the area since the state began stocking Bird Creek with salmon.

Further up the Seward Highway, Christopher Frey prepared to hike up the trail at McHugh Creek. He kept his bear spray in the right pocket of his backpack ,and said although he doesn’t have a bear gun, he brought his pistol to the trail just in case of a bear attack.

“[The news] even got down to the Lower 48, like my parents called me and said, ‘Hey be careful up there,” said Frey.

State wildlife workers have taken notice of the anxiety on the trails. In a press release sent out this week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote "News of two people mauled and killed by black bears in separate incidents on successive days in separate regions of the state has many Alaskans on edge."

Officials urge bear-aware techniques when recreating in Alaska’s backcountry during the summer months.

Although wildlife officials said this week's deadly black bear maulings are an anomaly and overall bear attacks on humans are rare, trail users are ramping up caution just in case.

“It kind of begs the question, are these bears becoming desensitized to human beings?” asked Desiree Petcoff, who said she only saw a couple other hikers during her Saturday stroll up Bird Ridge.