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


Janine Kube said...

While I was at Cades Cove this past weekend (6/20/14) a mother bear and her two cubs were in the field, near Dan Lawson's cabin. Traffic was backed up and people were getting out of their cars to see the bears. For the majority of time the bears stayed fairly far out in the field. Eventually the bears headed toward the road and the people had to scatter to allow the bears to cross between the cars and the people on the road, so that the bears could enter a trail into the forest. Luckily, nothing happened to the bears or people, this time. However, I am sure you can see the possibilities.

Other times I have seen bears in the cove, a ranger eventually always turns up and begins managing the people. I understand that the park rangers and volunteers are spread thin around the park. I also understand that you cannot get a cell signal in most of the park. However, it would be wise if there were land lines, maybe, set up around the cove that allowed people to call the ranger station when a bear is sighted and people are getting out of cars to get a closer look at the bears.

These bears are a treasure and I would hate to see anything bad happen.

Kristina Plaas said...

I'm not sure what your point is in citing from Director's Order #11B. If you are suggesting that press releases from Great Smoky Mountains NP are not reviewed before being released to the public, I respectfully disagree with you. This implies that press releases from park public affairs are done hastily and without careful inspection.

The exemption from #11B states: "Press releases, fact sheets, press conferences or similar communications in any medium that serve only to announce, support the announcement, or give public notice of information NPS has disseminated elsewhere." The key phrase here is *disseminated elsewhere.* In other words, if the the content of the release is already published, the usual review process (which can be quite lengthy, and has already been completed in the previous content if published by the park/NPS) can be bypassed. This does not say all press releases are exempt.

I appreciate the frustration that results when press releases, especially early releases, are later found to have some inaccuracies or omitted (intentionally or unintentionally) findings. This is a battle that all journalists in the business of providing timely news reports face. Yet when NPS agencies don't release reports in what the public perceives to be a timely manner, the NPS is accused of a lack of transparency. I believe the staff at Great Smoky Mountains NP do their very best to give as accurate a picture as is possible in time-sensitive reports. It may not be perfect, but the intent of park personnel is not deceptive nor malicious.

I find this portion of your report to be harshly judgmental and not appropriate for a blog post representing an organization promoting Smoky Mountain Tourism. Last I checked, Your Smokies was not about investigative journalism, it's about encouraging visitors to come to the Smokies. I don't see how blasting the NPS accomplishes that objective for your sponsors.

Smokies Hiker said...

I respect your opinion Kristina,

I want to make clear what Your Smokies has stood for since day 1 10 years ago: "Protecting, Educating and Marketing in the Smokies".

The prime directive is the protection of natural and culture resources. The second is truth and transparency in information - that the education part. The third and least in the tourism part.

We send out news. Not fluff PR pieces or just rehashing others words.

The reference to #11B is in regard to a 10 year documented history, not a singular incident or a dozen, but far more. GSMNP as a park is not alone.

Significant changes to the facts of story have just been submitted to me which I will be updating shortly.

Tommy Kirkland said...

Good work. If we deny the truth or don't seek it, we are bound to repeat history and experience the same problems all over again. It seems that bears are periodically becoming food conditioned and human habituated in Hazel Creek. Two questions remain, are the natural food sources realistically sufficient to supply bears with adequate nutrition, thereby minimizing the chances of bears investigating human recreational areas; and obviously, if aversive conditioning was being implemented on problem bears in Hazel Creek; it may have failed this round? The Park knows all to well from experience that rehabilitating problem bears is extremely difficult. This brings into question of how long should Park officials tolerate a problem food conditioned bear? If they wait too long hoping for a revert "back to the wild" and it doesn't manifest; then the end result only gets worse. Properly managing a wild bear population is not even realistic when officials expect a non-hunted population to sustain themselves on limited food sources due to high bear densities and a rampant hog population robbing native wildlife of natural food sources. Simply put, spring and summer foods are hard to come where the land isn't properly managed. Just compare studies and look at the data where wildlife officials manage for nutrition. Bears are healthier and problems are less in comparison to GSMNP. That's not to say that bears across the country are still not going to become food conditioned periodically. I guess the solution is to wait for "natural selection", but it has been proven that this approach does not sufficiently moderate or control bear densities. If the current manage agenda stays in place, we will continue to see bear problems and officials will continue to have jobs. Trap, aversive condition, and possibly relocate. The sad part of all this regarding the attack is that more attention has been on the "bear" instead of the victim. As long as some folks continue to erect an alter of animal pantheism, then we can expect to see humans become second class citizens in our national parks.

Anonymous said...

If natural food sources are inadequate to support the current bear population, it is reasonable to reduce the bear numbers through trapping and euthanizing. In regard to the wild hog issue, again an aggressive control program (ie. hunting), should be seriously considered.

Smokies Hiker said...


More than 10,000 feral hogs have been trapped and or killed by the park service in the Great Smoky Mountains national park since the 1950's.

The hog population in the park has held steady so it is considered a win.

There are stipulations in GSMNP Elk management of the numbers become to large to have park people kill them. No numbers on the books as to what is how many.

Bear population in the park is easily triple of what it was 25 years ago.

Chris Hibbard