Yellowstone Park grizzly mystery deepens

Three bears linked to the scene of a partially eaten hiker may still roam Yellowstone National Park, and officials can’t rule out that one might have killed him for food.

DNA from four bears has been isolated from hair and scat found at the site where John Wallace, 59, of Chassell, Mich., was killed by a grizzly in late August, officials said Tuesday.

Park officials have identified one of the bears, the same grizzly sow that killed 57-year-old Torrence, Calif., resident Brian Matayoshi in July. The identity of the three other bears remains unclear.

Yellowstone National Park staff killed the sow and captured her two cubs after the DNA evidence linked her to the site about five miles west of the Hayden Valley trailhead. Two hikers found Wallace’s partially consumed body there Aug. 26.

The location is about eight miles from where the sow killed Matayoshi on the Wapati Lake trail July 6.

“We have the DNA of four different bears at the [Wallace] site,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said.

Nash couldn’t say whether any of the DNA samples came from the sow’s two cubs, which were captured Thursday and are being kept at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont.

“The only one that I know that we’ve confirmed is the sow,” Nash said. “I don’t know if we are doing additional DNA testing on hair or scat samples from the cubs.”

Nash couldn’t say whether the attack on Wallace was predatory — done for a meal instead of as a reaction to a surprise encounter or in defense of a food source. A bison carcass on which bears had been feeding was nearby.

“It isn’t possible for us to know that answer,” Nash said. “We have to assume the attack could have been conducted by a predatory or aggressive bear, because we have no mechanism to rule it out.”

Nash also could not say which injuries killed Wallace or how much time, if any, passed between his death and when a bear or bears began to eat him.

“We know what the cause of death was: injuries to the body from a bear attack,” Nash said. “I don’t know if the autopsy reveals any more details. I don’t have that information.”

The sow killed Matayoshi on July 6 about a mile and a half along the Wapiti Lake trail after he and his wife, Marylyn Matayoshi, surprised the animal from about 100 yards. Marylyn Matayoshi escaped without serious injuries.

The sow was not killed at the time because, park staff said she was acting naturally to protect her cubs.

Since the August attack on Wallace, researchers have set numerous traps. Nash said park managers will consider killing any other bears linked to the site of Wallace’s death.

Officials say at least nine bears were feeding on two bison carcasses near where Wallace died. One bison carcass was roughly 150 yards from where the hikers found Wallace’s body. Wildlife managers also located 17 bear day beds in the area.

For now, the investigation into Wallace’s death is ongoing, Nash said.

“We know that there were several bears in that area prior to the attack,” he said. “We’re continuing to put traps out in the area, and we’ll continue to trap bears to see if we might link another bear to this incident site.”

Wallace’s mauling isn’t the first time a grizzly attack in or around Yellowstone has been a possible predatory act. In July 2010, a grizzly sow with three cubs dragged Michigan resident Kevin Kammer from his tent, killing him and injuring two others in a campground near Cooke City, Mont., northeast of the park. The cubs later were found to be malnourished.

In 2006, a grizzly killed and partially consumed 38-year-old photographer William Tesinsky in Hayden Valley. In July 2004, a grizzly dragged 25-year-old Brigitta Fredenhagen, a resident of Switzerland, from her tent and killed her. And, in June of 1983, a grizzly dragged 23-year-old Roger May from his tent, killed him, and ate part of him at the Rainbow Point campground on the Gallatin National Forest northwest of the park.

But fatal bear attacks in Yellowstone are extremely rare, Nash said.

“We’ve only had seven since the park was created in 1872,” he said.

Further, Nash said, bear-caused human injuries were once much more frequent.

“They were probably at their peak during the ’20s and ’30s,” he said. “From that era, there were 175 bear-caused human injuries per million visitors. In recent years, it’s about one per year, and we see well over 3 million visitors per year.”

Nash attributed the decline in bear attacks on humans to wildlife management changes that occurred in the ’60s and ’70s, a time when the park closed garbage dumps where bears had been feeding and outlawed feeding bears human sources of food. Visitor education has also reduced the number of bear attacks on humans, Nash said.

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