Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Two Female Geologists, Two Bears, One Gun

Image by Troy Nemitz, with permission.

On August 13, 1977, Cynthia Dusel-Bacon was working for her third summer as a geologist for the Alaskan branch of the United States Geological Survey.  She was 30 years old, in excellent physical condition. She was field mapping, doing helicopter assisted traverses of the Big Delta quadrangle. She had a geologists hammer, a walkie-talkie radio, and a rucksack with lunch, which she also used to stow rock samples she collected.

The project chief believed "guns added more danger to an encounter than they would prevent". Her views became policy on the project. 

Cynthia later said, in a taped interview for Larry Kanuit: "She had therefore strongly discouraged us from carrying any kind of a firearm."

Cynthia had been dropped off by helicopter.  She was hiking along a narrow path on a ridge a few miles from the Salcha River, about 60 miles Southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. A "small black bear" startled her with a crash in the brush. It appeared to her, staring at her, from about 10 feet away. She yelled at it. She pounded a rock with her hammer to make noise. The bear was not intimidated.  Cynthia took a step back, which was also higher on the rock.

The bear was not intimidated. It moved out of her sight, then struck her from behind and knocked her down. She had been told playing dead was the best strategy, so she did. The bear proceeded to drag her for nearly half an hour. During that time, her right arm was disabled as the bear tore and chewed on it. She was able to get her radio out of her pocket with her left arm and signal for help. 

The bear managed to eat and destroy much of both her arms before help arrived. She did not resist the bear.  If she had a firearm, she could easily have shot the bear. At 10 feet, standing still, even a small pistol could have worked. From Craig Medred:

Dusel-Bacon said the bear that stalked her also provided an ample opportunity to kill it, but she had no weapon.

It was a typical predatory attack by a black bear.  A bear, believed to have been the culprit, was later shot. It was a 175 lb sow.  It was not lactating. No one saw any cubs.

After Cynthia's attack, the Geological Survey offered training with firearms to people who worked in wild areas.  

The second incident involved Marti Miller.

Marti Miller was working for the Geological Survey as a cook when she met Cynthia, two years before Cynthia was attacked. They had become close friends. Marti visited Cynthia in the hospital, and was well aware of the details of the predatory attack.

In 1981, Marti joined the Geological Survey full time, after she finished her college degrees. She had her own encounter with a predatory black bear after she became a project leader, sometime before 1995. In January of 1995 she was interviewed by Larry Kaniut, the well known author of Alaskan bear books.

Marti Miller's experience was similar to Cynthia's in many ways. One difference was she was the project leader when her event happened. She was dropped off by helicopter in a very wild area, to work on a geological survey.  

The incident happened about 30 miles south of Aniak, Alaska. Miller was dropped off in the morning, to gather samples. After taking some samples on a ridge, she found a patch of ripe blueberries in the bottom of a draw she was crossing. She stopped and ate some for a few minutes. They were plump and especially sweet. She climbed back up the ridge on the other side, a hundred feet above the brush line, and looked back, about 9:30 a.m. She saw the black bear where she had been dropped off. She noticed it was following her trail, about a quarter mile back. She became more concerned when it continued to follow her through the blueberry patch, instead of stopping to eat blueberries. 

In her 30 lb pack were lunch, some of the samples she had taken, some spare clothes, spare ammunition, and spare sample bags.  She had a .30-06 rifle in the left side ski carrier, held butt up, and a radio in an outside pocket of the pack. She was carrying her survey map and a rock hammer. She took out the radio and tried to reach the pilot of the helicopter.  They had done a radio check shortly after she was dropped off. She could not make contact.

As her apprehension increased, she left her pack, took the rifle and radio, and hiked another 200 feet up the ridge to gain elevation and see what the bear did next. The bear followed her trail up the ridge. At the pack, it stopped for a moment, looked at her, then quickly moved to her right, out of sight. 

Marti remembered the bear which had attacked Cynthia had moved around and behind her before the ambush attack.

In the recounting of her incident, Marti casually mentioned another bear, the previous summer, had used the same technique to stalk her and three of her associates, all together. 

Marti decided to climb fast to get above the bear, to a place where she could see it approaching her.  She chambered a round in her rifle.  When she had gained elevation and space, she tried the radio again. Still no contact.  Then she saw the bear again. She moved directly upslope of the bear, and in her best command voice, yelled: "Get outta here!" 

The bear was about 100 feet away. It looked at her, and purposefully started walking toward her. When it was 70 feet away, she fired, aiming at the bear's nose. The 180 grain Nosler bullet broke the bear's neck, killing it instantly.

She remembered thinking, a bit surprised: "This thing worked." 

She fired another shot into the bear, then missed two more as she approached it for a closer look and the adrenaline shaking set in.

The bear was the first animal she had ever killed.  It was a 175 lb sow in good condition. It was about 10:00 a.m.

When she reported the incident to the authorities, the officer suggested she put it on her hunting license (she routinely purchased a hunting license as a precaution). If she had done so, she would not have been required to fill out a defense of life and property report. She could not legally hunt that day, because she had flown in a helicopter, a quirk of Alaska hunting regulations.

A significant amount of defensive bear shootings are recorded as hunting kills.

Cynthia's and Marti's accounts were recorded in Larry Kaniut's popular series of books on bear incidents. Cynthia's story is on pages 113 - 123 in Alaska Bear Tales. Marti Miller's story is on pages 58-69 of Some Bears Kill

The events involving Cynthia and Marti happened before the popularization of bear spray. In June of 2017, a woman biologist, Erin Johnson, was killed by a predatory black bear near the Pogo mine.  From Craig Medred:

Trainor didn’t sense the bear until it was within 10 feet, and she had no time to react. Murphy thinks her backpack, which the bear chewed on, might have saved her. With Trainor down, the bear moved on to Johnson as Trainor struggled to get a can of bear spray out of a holster on the pack’s waist band.

She succeeded in doing that, but the spray was of limited use, Murphy said.

“Ellen was able to spray the bear twice,” Murphy said, “but the bear came back….We’re trying to understand this.”

There has been some past research indicating that black bears can rather quickly recover from being sprayed.

As more field experience has been gained with bear spray, more incidents have revealed its limitations. It appears to work better with curious bears in parks than with aggressive bears in wilderness.

There are large and growing populations of black bears in North America.  Using firearms to stop the few aggressive bears who boldly approach people has no significant effect on bear populations, except to remove those with excessively aggressive genes.

Bear populations must be managed. Defensive shooting of bears is a tiny subset of the number of bears which must be killed each year.  

Bear spray can be a useful tool, in certain circumstances. 

One of the advantages of using firearms as a defensive tool against bears is that problem bears are killed, and cease to be problems. 

They do not come back for persistent attacks after being killed.


©2022 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More Bear Spray articles:

Null result, not deployed:

"Toward the end of the video, another man could be seen unleashing some bear spray at the bison, which the bison immediately ignored and just walked through." Comment near bottom of