A U.S. Army soldier who stumbled upon a brown bear den and was surprised by a “flash of brown mass” was killed Tuesday in a bear attack while exploring a wilderness area at an Alaska military base, a state wildlife official said.
Three soldiers had encountered the den while mapping a training site for a land navigation course at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, said Captain Derek DeGraaf, commander of the Northern Detachment of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, a wildlife law enforcement agency. † The arrival of the soldiers prompted the mother boar, or sow, to crawl out, he said. She ran after shooting a soldier and attacking a second, who later died.
“From the soldier’s perspective, there was a flash of brown matter,” he said. “They were attacked and didn’t even see it coming.”
The downed soldier was treated for minor injuries at a nearby hospital and released, Captain DeGraaf said. The joint army and air force base declined to release the name of the deceased soldier on Wednesday, pending family reports, and gave no further details about other soldiers involved in the episode. Captain DeGraaf said the two soldiers were both men around 30 years old.
The US Army Criminal Investigation Division is investigating all unexpected deaths of soldiers at army posts, said Patrick Barnes, a spokesman for the agency. The area is closed to the public for recreation, a statement from the base said.
State wildlife forces learned of the bear attack around 1:50 p.m. Tuesday and responded to the scene with members of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Army, Captain DeGraaf said. The Security Forces Squadron of the 673rd Air Base Wing initially responded, the base said.
Bear attacks are rare in Anchorage, and even in the wooded area the soldiers were exploring, bear dens are rare, Captain DeGraaf noted. These naturally camouflaged underground dugouts are often in remote wilderness — not unlike the training area — but usually at higher elevations on mountains and slopes, he said. People often don’t recognize bear dens until later in the year, he said, when more bears have emerged from hibernation and more tracks are visible on the ground.
According to a study by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology, 10 people died from bear attacks in Alaska between 2000 and 2017, and 68 people were hospitalized for injuries from such attacks. By comparison, 467 people were hospitalized for dog bites during that period.
The vast majority of hospitalized victims in the study were white males — mostly people in outdoor jobs and recreation — attacked by brown bears. One of the victims was in the military. These attacks were most common in the summer months in the southern coastal region of the state along the Gulf of Alaska. Boars often attacked, the study found, after being startled or perceived as a threat, and many were sows trying to protect their cubs.
Though rare, bear attacks appear to be increasing worldwide, the study said, due to habitat overlap from human population growth and outdoor recreation.
Wildlife troopers in the Anchorage area have received more calls in the past week and a half to see bears as the creatures emerge from hibernation, Captain DeGraaf said. More bears are wandering into town, he added — like the black bear he saw near the fence at a softball game this week “slumbering as if he’d just woken up.” People in the area usually come across “dumpster-diving bears” rummaging through the trash.
The soldiers were located about a mile from Pole Line Road in a shady wooded area where small snowflakes still cling to the ground after the snowy year, Captain DeGraaf said. A helicopter was dispatched to find the bear, but the crew struggled to search through the dense forest canopy, he added. He said officers stayed on the scene late Tuesday night to see if the sow would return, but she didn’t, leaving her cubs alone in their den.