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Bear Fatally Mauls hiker

A woman was mauled to death by a young grizzly bear Friday morning while she and her husband were returning from an overnight trip in Kluane National Park's Slims River Valley.

By Whitehorse Star on July 8, 1996

Monday, July 8, 1996

Bear Fatally Mauls hiker

A woman was mauled to death by a young grizzly bear Friday morning while she and her husband were returning from an overnight trip in Kluane National Park's Slims River Valley.

Dead is Christine Courtney, of New Westminster, B.C.

It was the first time anything like that has happened in the park.

Her husband, Paul, tried saving her, but was knocked down twice by the bear and bitten once on the leg. He was later taken to Whitehorse General Hospital for treatment, and was released Saturday.

Officials say the "curious and uncertain” bear may have just been "testing his environment” and "trying to decide what are food sources and what aren't.”

Subadult bears "try to remember the things their mother taught them,” said Terry Skjonsberg, the senior warden for Kluane Park.

The couple was walking along the forested trail when they spotted the bear about 35 metres away, said Skjonsberg, who interviewed the survivor. The 60-kg bear was around three years old and about 135 cm tall when standing.

He compared its size to a St. Bernard dog.

"Initially, they didn't think the bear saw them,” he said. "The bear had its head down. It didn't appear to see them or to react to them.”

The fatal attack came despite the fact the couple did a number of things correctly, like wearing bear bells and packing their food in bear-proof canisters.

The couple, estimated to be in their late 20s or early 30s, tried avoiding the bear by wandering off the path about 30 metres. Yet, said Skjonsberg, the bear noticed the two and went off the trail toward them. The couple walked another five to 10 metres before dropping their backpacks and clearing the area.

"They removed their packs in hope the bear would be occupied with them,” the warden noted. Because the food was protected in the canisters, the packs didn't hold the animal's interest.

The couple retreated to a clearing on a hillside, and, by curling into the fetal position, played dead.

The bear first sniffed the man, then began smelling the woman. He started pawing at the woman and biting her shoulder, causing her to react. (Officials don't know at this point whether the woman was menstruating.)

"An interview with the survivor said he tried to defend the woman by beating on the bear,” said Skjonsberg. But the bear knocked the man down and bit him on the leg.

The man hid behind a tree and the bear returned his attention to the woman.

"The husband came out and again beat on the bear, but it didn't seem to be deterring him at all.”

While the bear continued to attack the woman, the husband left the area and hurried to the Sheep Mountain visitor reception centre for help. He ran the first four kilometres and was driven the remaining two kilometres by vehicle.

Park officials returned to the site by helicopter and shot the bear from above.

"The bear was found basically on top of the body,” said Skjonsberg.

The warden estimates there are about 100 to 150 grizzly bears in the park, and maybe 100 black bears.

The Slims River Valley area has been closed to hikers since the attack.

"The area will stay closed because there has been sightings of other bears in the area. As well, we want to do more investigating and don't want the scene disturbed,” he said.

"We'll do a couple of patrols of the area, and if there's no unusual bear activity, it will reopen in three to five days.”

Prior to Friday, there were several sightings within the last couple of weeks of bears in a 30-to-40km area. Skjonsberg doesn't believe the earlier sightings should have been a warning sign to park officials.

"We monitored the sight fairly closely. There were no aggressive actions of bears or property damage, like to tents.”

When the mauling occurred, the Courtneys were the only people registered on an overnight hike in that area. Since then, officials have been dealing with the concerns of nervous hikers.

"We've been trying to explain to people that the odds of this happening are quite low,” he said.

There have been two other attacks, both minor incidents, since the southwest Yukon park opened in 1972. Both involved surprise encounters with a mother bear and her cubs.

A necropsy determined there were no signs of illness in the bear involved in Friday's tragedy.

"The contents of its stomach contained normal vegetation and small articles of clothing.

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