Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tragic Story of a 16 Year Old Camper, 2 Bear and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Continues.

In a very sad turn of events, DNA evidence has confirmed that the bear that was trapped and destroyed by Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) rangers was in fact not the black bear that attacked and mauled a 16 year old camper.

This does not mean that the rangers in the field did anything wrong by destroying the bear that was not responsible for the attack. They made the best decision possible based upon the facts at hand at that minute and as you will see later, had no other choice.

This tragic story started at around 10:30 on the night of June 6th 2015 when 16 year old Gabriel Alexander from Ohio was attacked by a black bear while he was sleeping near his father Greg Alexander in backcountry campsite 84 in the Hazel Creek North Carolina area of the Great Smoky Mountains national park.

Gabriel suffered significant injuries from the attack and spent 5 days in Mission Hospital in Asheville NC. The amazing story including the heroic struggle he and his father had after the attack can be read about here.

At daybreak on June 7th 2015 National Park Rangers entered the Hazel Creek area by boat and started closing campsite 84 as well as all of the surrounding campsites and hiking trails since a dangerous bear was in the area.

Rangers and wildlife officers worked on gathering as much forensic evidence as possible while they were retrieving personal belongings left at the site.

While doing so they found drag marks made by the bear as it dragged Gabriel as well as blood, saliva and hair from the bear and blood and hair from the victim.

Rangers from the GSMNP set up a culvert trap (similar to the photograph below) which is a metal tube with a sliding door in order to trap the offending bear if it came back.

On June 8th just before sunset park wildlife biologists encountered a bear that was suspected in the attack near campsite 84 and shot at it a number of times.

The bear ran off after being shot at and the wildlife rangers were unable to successfully track the potentially wounded bear. The problems they encountered when attempting to track the bear included that fact it was getting dark and that a severe thunderstorm with heavy rainfall was taking place.

Upon returning to campsite 84 on the morning of June 9th, 2015, rangers found a bear caught in the trap they set on June 7th. The trapped bear was tranquilized and following that euthanized with an injection of Potassium Chloride.

The captured male bear was examined and did not show any signs of a recent bullet wound. After DNA samples were taken from the dead bear it was ”recycled” into the forest, the same way most other wildlife carcasses are in the GSMNP.

Since so much was at stake and there was no way to know if they destroyed the right bear until DNA the evidence comes back from the lab proving it, wildlife rangers had to continue searching the area for any other aggressive bear as well as looking for any bear that they may have shot.

During the 9th while searching the area, a spent bullet from a rifle with bear hair still on it was found. It was collected and sent to the same lab as the other DNA samples.

How a bullet was found without specifically looking with a metal detector, especially after there was a "severe thunderstorm with heavy rainfall" which should have washed away most any blood trail is beyond me.

On June 9th the Great Smoky Mountains national park spokesperson released an official statement saying that rangers have trapped and then euthanized a bear that morning and that DNA samples were sent to the lab to determine if it was the correct bear. No mention was ever made of another bear being shot at or a bullet with bear hair on it was found.

The DNA samples sent out were analyzed by the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory which is part of the East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania which uses genotyping equipment that is maintained in a controlled and secure environment.

This lab provides services for both forensics and research of wildlife populations. The lab is able to determine accurately and in a very timely manner among other things such as species and sex variations between DNA samples or lack of variations proving that 2 or more DNA samples are from the same animal or not.

Based upon DNA samples collected from the scene of the attack, the euthanized bear and the bullet which struck and injured a bear, the following has been determined.

  1. The bear responsible for the attack was a male.
  2. The bear trapped and euthanized (male) is not the bear responsible for the attack.
  3. The bear rangers shot that got away (male) may be responsible for the attack.

According to the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory, there was an insufficient sample size of bear DNA from the bullet to make an exact determination if it was in fact it was DNA from the bear that attacked the camper. They did give an estimation that the bear that was shot is a 65% match to the attacking bear.

Officially ”While it is likely that the bear shot was the same involved in the attack, it cannot be confirmed without a better DNA sample”. Considering bear populations in the Hazel Creek area would not have as diverse a genetic makeup as humans that would populate an area of that size, a 65% determination as to a ”match” for a bear is not as positive as it sounds as if it was a human.

Wildlife biologists for the GSMNP are taking the stance that they believe that the bear that they shot is likely dead. They believe this as there has been no additional bear activity at campsite 84 since June 8 despite ”extensive search efforts”.

Bear in mind that the park service does not use tracking or cadaver dogs when it comes to wildlife issues or wildlife management such as hunting for invasive species. Scientists with specially trained dogs are no longer granted permits to search for panther in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which was allowed for years.

Also bear in mind that the normal home range for a male black bear is from 8 to 60 square miles, some range as many as 100 square miles. Obviously a single campsite in the forest is a minuscule part of the the normal range of a black bear and a being shot at and injured could force a bear to move elsewhere possibly outside its normal territorial range.

Temporary closures still remain in effect for backcountry sites in the area as well as all the surrounding hiking trails. Great Smoky Mountains national park wildlife officers are still searching and investigating and Park Managers will assess later this week whether it would be "reasonably safe" to end the closures.

The GSMNP announced the DNA results on June 23rd and stated the ability of using DNA was ”the first time in the history of managing bear populations in the park where wildlife biologists have had access to a lab willing and capable of processing DNA samples in a timely enough manner to be of use in a bear attack case”. This is a huge leap forward in public safety.

”Due to the extreme seriousness of the bear attack and threat to human safety, we responded swiftly to secure the safety of hikers in the backcountry,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash. ”Though extremely rare and regrettable, we recognize that an uninvolved bear was euthanized through this process and we will be examining new procedures that may allow us to quickly use DNA analysis to correctly identify bears responsible for predatory attacks in the future.”

What does it all mean?

1) Not even the bear attack victim wanted to have any bear destroyed. He acknowledged it had to be done to the offending bear in order to protect other humans. The fact that the wrong bear was put down is sad, but mistakes are made and we should be glad to know with certainty when either the right or the wrong animals is destroyed.

With circumstantial evidence, if we can draw fast conclusions without cold hard indisputable facts, we are going to make mistakes. This time it was a bears life. It could have been a humans if we got the wrong bear and thought the area was safe.

2) Even skilled marksman that shoots at wildlife for a living can miss putting down a large target with a rifle - with more than one shot. Remember this when someone wants to ”protect you from wildlife” with a small caliber handgun rather than a can of bear spray.

3) You can do everything right as these campers did in the backcountry and yet something can go horribly wrong. If both campers had bear spray, the injuries may have been lessened. If the campers used a portable electric fence designed for camping, the bear would have never made contact with either camper.

4) Dogs need to be used more often in situations such as this. If the bear that was shot was in fact killed or wounded, a trained dog would have found it. I have some doubts as to if the bear is dead for sure unless there are more facts that were not released.

5) Numerous suggestions have been made that the trapped bear and future suspected offenders should have been held in some form of captivity until it was proven whether it was the bear that attacked someone or not. While good intentioned this is not something that will work for a few reasons:

  • Not all offending animals will end up being captured live.
  • There are no facilities in the park to hold wildlife for days or even weeks.
  • Even if such a faculty is made, how do you release an animal held and fed by humans back into the world without them acclimated to humans?
    Presently captured problem bears are purposely harassed humanly for up to hours (not physically) so that when they are released they avoid humans.

6) In 2013 hunters in North Carolina killed 2,991 black bear. So far for 2015 the Great Smoky Mountains national park can confirm 2 bear were killed by the park and they believe another was killed as well. I think these numbers speak for themselves.

7) A bear was shot at and hit was left out of previous reports and conversations prior to the release of the DNA results. Press releases are exempt from guidelines for quality and accuracy required for organizational, natural, cultural resource and budget information as laid out in DIRECTOR’S ORDER #11B: Information Quality – Ensuring Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Used and Disseminated by the National Park Service. If you think this is wrong, you are not alone.

This story will be continue to be updated.
Last updated on 6/24/2105 11:42am with a new timeline

Black Bear information for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Camping Conditions, Bear Warnings and Bear Closures in the GSMNP

Hiking Conditions, Bear Warnings and Bear Closures on GSMNP Trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Official Statements

Recent Bear attacks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Monday, June 08, 2015

Body of Missing Off Trail Hiker Found in Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Search teams found a body in the Great Smoky Mountains national park this morning at around 9:30am matching the description and believed to be that of avid 62 year old hiker Jenny Bennett who lived in Sylva North Carolina and according to her family has been missing since at least June 1st 2015.

Numerous people noticed her car sitting alone at the Porters Creek Trailhead parking area which was confirmed by rangers last night at around 7:53pm. Being too late to start a search, an area wide search went underway first thing this morning involving trained man trackers from the national park and other agencies with the aid of dogs.

The search ended when they found what ranger believe to be hiker Jenny Bennett’s body in an off trail area of Lester Prong in Greenbrier about a mile south and above backcountry campsite 31 at the end of the Porters Creek. Foul play is not suspected at this time.

Many other hikers have been lost or stranded in the same general area in the past, most notably GSMNP Backcountry Park Volunteer 70 year old hiker Albert Morgan Briggs who spent almost a week stranded atop Porters Mountain.

Exact details are still sketchy as to when she started her ill fated hike, but what is known is that her car was parked at the Porters Creek Parking area since at least the night before last. When Jenny Bennett decided to get in one more solo off trail hike in the Great Smoky Mountains national park before moving to Vermont is anyone’s guess at this point.

What is known is she was supposed to move to Vermont on June 1st and when movers arrived at her residence in Sylva, she was nowhere to be found.

Jenny Bennett’s brother Peter Bennett had no idea that she was missing until Saturday June 6 when he received a call from her landlord in Sylva who told him that her belongings were still in the house in Sylva, some of which were never packed.

He then reported her absence as well as the fact Jenny was an avid hiker and a member of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club to a Jackson County Sheriff deputy who told him that they were going to treat this as a missing person case and start searching for her car.

Peter Bennett went on to tell the deputy that she was probably up one of the trails in the area. The Sheriff's department told him they were going to follow up and search the trail heads for her car.

Her brother Peter expecting the best assumed he would hear back from the Sheriff’s department with a few hours, but by the end of the day he had not heard back and became more concerned prompting him to email the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club.

The next day on June 7th at 10:36am Peter Bennett posted a missing persons report on the Go Smokies blog which eventually made its way around Facebook as well. National Park Officials we also notified the on June 7th that Bennett was missing as far back as Saturday May 30 and possibly in the park.

The park service had no recent backcountry permits on file for Jenny Bennett, nor was her parked cars license plate run the system to see if she had an active backcountry permit while it sat in the parking area for at least 1 day prior to it being reported missing.

Not only was Jenny Bennett an avid off trail hiker in the Smokies, she was a writer as well. She produced 2 books Murder at the Jumpoff and the latest being The Twelve Streams of LeConte as well as a blogger writing on treamsandforests.wordpress.com


More information to follow...

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Black Bear Attacks Camper in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Unprovoked black bear attacks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) are very rare, especially when the person who was attacked was so even though they were following all the recommended black bear safety rules.

Unfortunately for a 16 year old boy Gabriel Alexander from Ohio camping with his father Greg Alexander in a primitive backcountry campsite in the Hazel Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains national park, rare doesn’t mean never.

The site where the ”bear incident” occurred is backcountry campsite 84 also known as Sugar Fork which has a capacity of 6 campers and is located 4.5 miles North from the shoreline of Fontana Lake near Hazel Creek in North Carolina.

At around 10:30 last night the black bear attack in the GSMNP occurred as the son Gabriel Alexander was sleeping in his hammock and his father Greg, the only other camper in the campsite, was sleeping in his own hammock about 10 feet away.

Awakened from a deep sleep by intense pain in his scalp, the bear attack victim never knew what was attacking him and thought perhaps it was a dog. He received multiple serious injuries including severe lacerations to his head as the bear violently pulled him from his hammock and dragged him screaming in the campsite toward the bushes.

While Gabriel Alexander was being attacked by the bear, his father woke up when he heard his son screaming for help. There was just enough moonlight so he could see the bear was dragging his son across the ground by his head.

Barefoot, Gregg tried kicking the bear which had no effect on him. He then jumped on the bears back and started punching the bear in the face at which point the bear finally let go of Gabriel. The bear then backed off a few paces and then moved again towards father and son. Being hit hard at least once with a rock thrown by the father the bear finally moved further away but could be heard circling the two in the brush.

After being attacked and injured by the black bear, the victim and his father quickly packed a few things and bravely hiked the approximately 3-1/2 miles in the dark down the Hazel Creek Hiking Trail to the next backcountry campsite number 86 where they were lucky enough to find campers that had a boat at shore of the lake close by.

After the Father Greg, son Gabriel and other campers made it down to shore, they took a boat ride in the dark across Fontana Lake to the Cable Cove boat dock where Graham County Rescue EMS transported them at about 3:00 am to a landing zone where they were then flown by Mountain Area Medical Airlift to Mission Hospital in Asheville NC.

The 16 year old victim remained conscious throughout the entire bear attack and remains in the ICU at Mission Hospital where he is in stable condition at this time and was able to get up and walk around Monday afternoon.

The father and his son were hiking and camping for days and had already completed 40 miles into what was going to be a 50-mile backpacking trip. All of their food, equipment and packs were correctly stored by being hung up on bear safe aerial food storage cables so as not to attract wildlife to an easy meal.

Proper storage of food, trash and camping items great reduces the number and severity bear encounters if bear cannot receive any rewards of human food. While you may do everything correctly during your stay in a campsite, bear or other wildlife may be habituated by other less careful campers before your arrival.

Though there were other issues in the past year in that area, there were no prior black bear problems reported in the past few days at that backcountry site or at ones close by promoting any sort of warning. There have been black bear issues above that campsite at the Derrick Knob Shelter on the Appalachian Trail which may be related to the same bear.

There are reports that in the same campsite last fall, a black bear grabbed a chunk of an air mattress from underneath a camper. Other campers have claimed at around the same time they had water bottles clawed at in Bone Valley, and a bottle of liquid soap with a strong scent was bitten into at Hazel Creek.

Park rangers and wildlife biologists used boats and then have hiked into the campsite where the bear attack occurred as well as surrounding campsites to investigate the attack and clear the area of other campers and hikers until it is safe again for public use.

If they can determine which of the parks many black bears initiated the attack, the animal will be destroyed. Due to extensive forensic evidence collected, if the bear is found in short period of time, national park officials can be sure they did in fact get the right animal or not after the bears necropsy.

Even though Gabriel, a straight-A student, track athlete and member of the marching band at his high school went through a terrible ordeal due to the aggression of this a predatory bear, he expressed mixed feelings about the national parks protocol to put down such an animal. While he did not want the bear to have to be euthanized, he also did not want anyone else to go through what he has.

For now the following backcountry campsites are closed: 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, and 88 and the following hiking trails are closed to all use until further notice: Bone Valley Trail, Cold Spring Gap Trail, Hazel Creek Trail and Jenkins Ridge Trail. As a precaution Derrick Knob shelter along the Appalachian Trail has also been closed to camping and there is a park representative there right now.

Our new park superintendent Cassius Cash stated ”While incidents with bears are rare, we ask park visitors to take necessary precautions while hiking in bear country and comply with all backcountry closures,” and went on to say ”The safety of our visitors is our number one priority.”

Other recent bear attacks that occurred around the United States this month were a 55 year old hunter in New Mexico who suffered deep flesh wounds from scratches on his chest and a bite to his leg by a black bear who was startled by him, and 2 people camping in Colorado who were bitten by a bear one of which was first tackled by a bear which then started biting a him in the back of the neck and head.

Black Bear information for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Camping Conditions, Bear Warnings and Bear Closures in the GSMNP

Hiking Conditions, Bear Warnings and Bear Closures on GSMNP Trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Official Statements

Recent Bear attacks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Update 6/7/2015 7:43 pm
At 7:32 this evening there was a report made of numerous people being chased by an aggressive black bear, one of which was a women claiming she was chased for a mile on the popular Laurel Falls Hiking Trail between the Sugarlands and Elkmont.

This hiking trail is already under an aggressive Bear Warning as well as Mount LeConte.

Update 6/9/2015 1:43 pm
It is believed that the bear that attacked Gabriel Alexander has been captured by park service personnel. We are awaiting positive identification at this time.

Update 6/9/2015 5:38 pm
Official park statement in regard to the bear captured this morning:

This morning, we captured, tranquilized, and humanely euthanized a male bear with potassium chloride at Campsite 84. Based on our experience and training, the bear exhibited the behavior pattern we expected. It returned directly to the site, within feet of where Alexander's hammock was strung. Due to the seriousness of the attack, our staff acted swiftly and did not take any chances.

We have collected bear hair and blood samples from the night of the attack and also this bear. Samples have been sent to the lab for DNA analysis and we expect that report to come back within a couple of weeks.

The trails and campsites will remain closed. There is always a chance that we did not get the right bear and human safety is our number one concern. Our staff remains on scene to continuing monitoring the site for bear activity.

Dana Soehn
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Management Assistant/Public Affairs

Update 6/9/2015 8:12 pm
Hopes are that Gabriel can leave the hospital and head back home to Ohio on Wednesday where after some plastic surgery he is expected to make a full recovery. The bear attack left him with deep gashes on his scalp and face and a wound near his mouth.

Update 6/23/2105 9:04 pm
DNA proves bear euthanized was innocent and another bear was shot.