State tests show 3 bears shot in South Fork weren’t involved in June attacks

Monday, July 23, 2018 - 21:35
  • A sign warns hikers of a trail closure due to bear activity at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead on Thursday, July 19, 2018. (Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Kristen Pettit of Lisle, Illinois takes a photo of a closure sign at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead on Thursday, July 19, 2018. Pettit and her family planned to hike the trail Thursday morning, but chose a different hike after learning of the trail closure. (Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • A sign warns people to stay away from the area off Hiland Road where the body of Michael Soltis was found and searcher Paul Vasquez was mauled by a bear in June. On July 13, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shot a sow brown bear and two cubs near the location. Genetic tests will be used to determine if the bear or bears were involved in the maulings. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

DNA tests have revealed that the brown bear sow and two cubs killed in the South Fork Eagle River Valley last week were not involved in the two maulings in the area last month that left one man dead and another injured, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said on Thursday.

State wildlife biologists shot and killed the three bears from a helicopter on July 13, nearly a month after a bear killed Michael Soltis, 44, and later injured volunteer searcher Paul Vasquez, 51.

Hair and tissue samples taken from the bears killed were compared to hair, blood and saliva collected at the mauling sites. They did not match.

The nearby, popular South Fork Eagle River trailhead, that leads to Hanging Valley and Eagle and Symphony lakes, will remain closed until further notice, said Chugach State Parks Chief Ranger Ben Corwin.

A Fish and Game spokesman could not be reached for further comment Thursday, including about whether the agency will keep bear traps in the area.

State wildlife biologists do know they’re looking for one brown bear sow. New testing results confirmed that the same sow both killed Soltis and injured Vasquez, according to Ken Marsh, Fish and Game spokesman. But the location of that bear is unknown.

The bear attacked Vasquez on the morning of June 20 near the end of Hiland Road — a winding, 9-mile-long route into the South Fork Eagle River Valley. Vasquez was part of a search group looking for Soltis, a civil engineer and avid outdoorsman who went missing two days earlier. Soltis lived a few miles from the end of Hiland Road. It was believed he set out for a quick hike before dinner on June 18, a Monday, and never returned.

Police found Soltis’ body in a brushy area a short distance from the road, near where the bear mauled Vasquez. Police said a brown bear had killed Soltis, and it appeared the bear was protecting his body.

Soltis’ death is the second fatal bear attack in the Municipality of Anchorage in two summers.

Last June, a 16-year-old runner was killed by a black bear during a race at Bird Ridge. State biologists later shot and killed four black bears in the area, including one they believed fatally mauled the teenager.

Fish and Game set bear traps. Two more close-range brown bear encounters in the area were reported to the agency this month, one involving a cub and the other a sow with cubs. Neither resulted in injuries.

Last week, concerned neighbors reported the brown bear sow and two cubs in the area of Harp Mountain. From the mountainside, the June mauling sites were visible, Marsh said last week. The bears were killed.

Hikers turned back

On a spectacularly sunny Thursday afternoon, the normally packed South Fork Eagle River trailhead parking lot was empty save one car, a Honda with Alaska plates and no owner in sight. Aside from that, the normally busy trailhead leading to popular destinations such as Hanging Valley and the Eagle/Symphony lakes area was quiet and foreboding, with hot pink tape strung across the entrance to the trail. A bright red sign featuring a black silhouette of a bear warned hikers of the risks involved with crossing the tape.

“DANGER!” read the sign. “Do not pass this point! Two charges on hikers by a brown bear sow with cubs in last few days. CLOSED until further notice.”

Illinois residents Grant and Kristen Pettit drove up to the trailhead to check out the scene. The couple had planned to hike to Eagle and Symphony — a pair of uniquely contrasting twin lakes — Thursday morning, but changed their plans when they read about the trail closure.

“It’s the last day of our trip,” Grant Pettit said standing outside his rental car as his 8- and 9-year old boys poking their heads out the windows. “We wanted to try to wear out our two kids.”

The Pettit’s instead hiked Thunder Bird Falls in Chugiak Thursday morning, then drove to the South Fork area to at least “scope out” the area on their way south to hike Falls Creek.

“It looked like a really cool hike,” he said.

During their Alaska adventure, the family has seen moose, bears and musk ox, said Pettit, who showed a video of his boys glissading down a mountain snow chute near Ketchikan. Pettit said the missed opportunity to see the lakes won’t tarnish the family’s two-week trip to Alaska.

“Now we have a reason to come back,” he said.

The Pettit’s said they’re well aware of the dangers of hiking in Alaska, and they purchased a can of spray after reading of Anchorage’s ongoing bear issues.

“I made him buy it just for this hike,” Kristin Pettit said.

Having a hike cancelled by bears is a bummer, they said, but the self-described “flatlanders” said wild animals are also a part of what brought them to Alaska.

“All we have back home are raccoons,” Grant Pettit said.

Residents keep watch

Residents of the South Fork area have been on high alert since the maulings. Kevin Brownsberger lives near the site of the attacks, and said locals have been tracking area bears on social media on a daily basis.

“We chatter a lot there, it’s really handy,” Brownsberger said after hauling in his trash can after the afternoon pick-up.

The attacks have given folks a sense of unease, he said.

“We’re all just nervous,” said Brownsberger, who said he’s seen brown and black bears in the neighborhood and heard of several close encounters between the animals and his neighbors.

An avid hiker, Brownsberger said he’s taken additional precautions since the attacks, including buying fresh cans of bear spray and eschewing solo hikes.

“My plan is to do a lot more meet-up groups,” he said.

Brownsberger said he’s not sure how to solve the bear encounter issues. More hunting might help, he said, but there are also more and more people venturing deeper into the wilderness.

“They’re leaving Flattop and going more places,” he said.

The best defense against a bear attack, he said, is to always be prepared anywhere in Alaska.

“We have an adventurous population and bear encounters are a part of it.”

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