Some of the circumstances that led to a brown bear attack near Haines this spring came to light when a wildlife biologist interviewed the victim recently.
The attack happened during a university mountaineering trip, which was originally planned for the Juneau Icefield. Mauling victim Forest Wagner was by himself and without a bear deterrent when he ran into what appeared to be a sow and cub.
On April 18, University of Alaska Southeast professor Forest Wagner was with nine students and two teaching assistants, descending Mount Emmerich.
The group was on day five of a six-day mountaineering trip. Wagner had led other expeditions like this; he’s an outdoor studies teacher. But this trip usually happens at the Juneau Icefield. Poor snow and ice conditions rerouted the trek to Mount Emmerich, near Haines.
“While April is a little bit earlier for bears to emerge from the dens, it’s still within that kind of natural time period,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist Stephanie Sell. “And certainly with the mild winters, that probably influenced the emergence in April of this year.”
The snow conditions weren’t great on Mount Emmerich either. The group made its way down, with Wagner skiing out in front, looking for a better route. That’s when he saw the bear.
“He did try to wave arms and make noise,” Sell said. “And it was a very short amount of time before the bear made contact.”
Sell says Wagner struggled at first, but then played dead. She says the attack was ‘fairly quick’ and consistent with other defensive bear maulings – a ‘grab and release’ to neutralize what the animal sees as a threat. Wagner did not have bear spray or another deterrent with him.
“We can’t really confirm that but it’s likely that it was a female and cub pair that Mr. Wagner came upon.”
Sell isn’t sure why the bear acted the way it did. But her theory is that the sow and cub had recently emerged from their den and were surprised by Wagner.
“It was likely she was defending a cub from Mr. Wagner who she perceived as a threat…He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Sell did not want to discuss the extent of Wagner’s injuries.
Since he was ahead of the group, Wagner was alone following the confrontation. Sell says Wanger has wilderness first responder training and he was able to administer first aid on himself until help arrived.
“I would just like to really highlight the positives of this situation. I know that sounds weird but there’s a lot of things that went right in this situation.”
She says other people in Wagner’s group had first responder training and stabilized him after the attack. Sell also commended the Alaska State Troopers and Temsco Helicopters for their response. Wagner and the students were evacuated from the mountain.
Sell says people should be aware that bears are out early with the mild winters and early springs Alaska has experienced lately. The area the UAS group traveled was very remote, and at about 2,000 feet, ideal bear denning habitat.
Sell interviewed Wagner about the attack to try to learn what could prevent such incidents in the future.
She says in bear country, hikers should travel in groups, make noise and carry bear deterrent. Although Wagner told Sell that the attack happened so quickly, he didn’t think he would’ve had time to use bear spray anyway.
No other bear incidents have been reported in that area since the attack.
Whether Fish and Game will make any recommendations about changes to the UAS mountaineering course remains to be seen. Sell says she has to talk with her supervisor about it.
“Of course, Mr. Wagner is an outdoors instructor, there are things he’s learned from this situation. Because of the early timing, they didn’t have bears on their mind. So certainly that’s something I think they’re gonna prepare for a little bit more in the future. Whether they reach out to us for safety training, I don’t know, but that’s certainly something we can encourage them to do.”
Sell is personal friends with Wagner. She said it was ‘terrifying’ to hear about the bear attack, and then find out it was someone she knew.
Wagner was medavaced to Providence Hospital and stayed there for about a month. He is now back in Juneau and will resume teaching when classes begin this semester.
Wagner did not respond to a request for comment by air time.