A brown bear attacked a well-known area biologist and birder while he was watching birds at the Kasilof River beach on Sunday afternoon with his family.
Alaska State Troopers said the bear first attacked a vehicle and a telephone pole before attacking Toby Burke, 48, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Burke did not do anything to provoke the bear and suffered bruising on his arm from the brief attack, said Megan Peters, Alaska State Troopers spokesperson. Emergency medical services examined Burke’s arm and said he was fine. Burke declined further medical attention, Peters said.
“The man was very lucky,” Peters said. “... He was able to walk away and go home.”
Multiple residents called troopers about the oddly behaving bear on the beach. One trooper and two Alaska Wildlife Troopers responded.
Troopers shot and killed the bear after it charged them from beyond the tree line where they were patrolling and where the bear had last been seen.
Burke said he was walking toward the mouth of the Kasilof River with his wife, Laura, two of their kids and their 7-month-old infant when he first saw the bear from a quarter of a mile away. With their birding equipment they could see the bear was thin. A green dune buggy drove down onto the beach, scaring the bear off the beach into the dunes. Burke lost sight of the bear in the dunes and is unsure if the driver saw the bear before he left the beach.
While the family decided whether to go to their van or further north away from the bear, Burke’s 11-year-old daughter, Grace, looked behind them and said, “Here it is Dad. It’s right behind us in the dunes, and it’s coming toward us.”
The family grouped close together and clapped and hollered in an attempt to scare the bear away.
“It had no effect on the bear. If anything it started to lope faster and break into a — I guess you could say — run. At that point we knew it wasn’t going to be a very good encounter,” Burke said.
Armed with a spotting scope mounted on a heavy, 6-foot tripod, Burke placed himself between the bear and his family. Burke used his birding equipment to hit the bear and lodged the scope in the bear’s mouth in an effort to keep the animal off himself and his family. The whole family continuously yelled and hollered at the bear, trying to scare it off.
Eventually the bear snapped the scope off the tripod with its paw leaving a sharp shaft on the end of the tripod, which Burke said he jabbed in the bear’s face and mouth. The bear swiped with its paw again, knocking the tripod out of Burke’s hands, leaving him armed with nothing but his own hands. Burke put up his left arm, and the bear clamped down. Burke thinks he then began hitting the bear in the head with his right arm. The bear took a swing and connected with Burke’s rib cage, but Burke remained on his feet in a crouched “wrestler” like position.
Then the bear gave up and broke off the attack, but not before turning around a few times and running partway back to the family. Burke thinks the attack didn’t last longer than a minute.
“The whole time it seemed like it wanted to get to my wife and kids. They’re smaller than me,” Burke said. The biologist is 6 feet tall and was dressed in winter clothing, making him appear even bigger.
His multiple heavy layers of clothes also prevented the bear from injuring Burke beyond a few bruises.
The bear never made contact with his family, and their 7-month-old infant slept through the entire incident while strapped to Laura’s back.
“They were shaken,” Burke said of his family, “but they performed like troopers. They didn’t run. They stayed behind me. They listened to everything I told them to do, and they made lots of noise”
Burke had never encountered a bear at the beach before, so he was unarmed and wasn’t carrying bear spray.
After ensuring Burke’s arm was OK, the family called 911 to get troopers to the beach to warn other people of the erratic bear.
The family waited in their van for the troopers to arrive. When they got there, Burke told them he had seen two parties of two people heading north, and on their way back they would likely cross paths with the bear.
“I said, ‘Hey, you need to get out on the beach. … It looks like it’s going to end very badly unless you guys get out there.’”
The troopers jumped in their rig, and between five and 10 minutes later the Burke family heard the shots that killed the bear.
“Evidently when the troopers did kill the bear,” he said, “two people were very, very close to the bear, so it is likely that it would’ve ended very badly, if the troopers weren’t there.”
Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, said the bear that attacked Burke is likely the same bear another man encountered at about noon Sunday on the south side of the Kasilof River. The man was going halibut fishing and watched the bear for a while from his truck before getting out. While he was getting back in his truck, the bear began coming toward him, so he got in his truck. He slowly began backing out and the bear rushed his truck and hit the vehicle. The bear chased the truck for a ways before trailing off.
Selinger said the incident was the first reported bear encounter of the season. Sightings and signs of bear activity have been reported. He encourages people to report bear encounters — good and bad.
“Bears are coming out of their dens,” he said. “People need to be really cautious this time of year.”
Troopers originally thought the female bear was 2 to 3 years old because of its small size, but Burke found that its teeth were “really worn down” revealing the bear was probably about 10 years old, Peters said.
“The way it was acting leads us to believe that it was probably just really hungry and trying to find something to eat,” Peters said.
To avoid bear attacks Peters said people should store food properly, look for signs of bear activity, make noise, and have bear spray at the ready and know how to use it.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.