CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - The female grizzly bear that attacked and killed a hiker when apparently startled with two cubs will be allowed to continue roaming free in Yellowstone National Park after officials determined the animal had acted to protect its young.
A probe of Wednesday’s fatal bear mauling, the first in Yellowstone since 1986, suggests the mother grizzly was provoked by a perceived threat from the hiker and his wife when they encountered the animal and its cubs foraging for food.
“The bear’s behavior is consistent with a bear who was in a defensive posture,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said during a news conference at park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. “We did not see anything predatory in terms of the bear’s actions.”
The grizzly believed to have been involved in the attack is being monitored from the air by Yellowstone rangers for now to keep tabs on its movements, park officials said. The bear has never been captured or tagged and has no record of previous aggression or interactions with humans.
The decision not to capture or kill the animal was announced as additional details of the attack were made public by the National Park Service.
The victim, Brian Matayoshi, 57, of Torrance, California, near Los Angeles, was hiking with his wife, Marylyn, on the Wapiti Lake Trail and happened on the family of bruins as the couple emerged from a forested area into an open meadow.
The hikers first spotted a bear about 100 yards away and began walking in the other direction, but when they turned to look back they saw the female grizzly charging at them down the trail, according to an account issued by park officials.
The couple began running, but the bear caught up to them and attacked the husband, then approached the wife, who had fallen to the ground nearby.
“The bear bit her daypack, lifting her from the ground and then dropping her,” the park statement said, but the woman remained still and the grizzly lumbered off.
The woman then walked back toward the meadow, and began shouting for help, attracting the attention of a distant group of hikers who managed to call for assistance by cell phone.
Two park rangers arrived on the scene within 20 minutes, but the man was dead from his wounds, which included multiple bite and clawing injuries.
The bear and her two 6-month-old cubs had been spotted in the area before the attack, and have been seen since. A warning sign had been posted at the trailhead based on known bear activity in the area, which is not uncommon.
Park rangers have gathered samples of feces and hair left behind by the bear for DNA fingerprinting to check against any potential future incidents.
Park officials say bears that become aggressive toward people and pose a continuing threat to human safety are captured and either removed from the park or destroyed.
But the bear linked to Wednesday’s incident is not believed to have had any previous contact with park visitors.
The fatal attack occurred about a mile and a half from the start of the Wapiti Lake trail as the couple hiked west back toward their parked vehicle.
Trails throughout a 6,400-acre (100-square-mile) backcountry area around the site of the incident, will remain closed until rangers are confident they are safe for hikers, officials said. The closure represents a tiny fraction of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres.
The South Rim Road had been closed overnight as a precaution, but has since reopened. The road leads to Artist Point, a popular overlook offering unobstructed views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and the Lower Falls.
Wenk said the man urged his wife to run before he was knocked down. The wife took refuge near a fallen tree and played dead, surviving the incident without injury.
Kerry Gunther, a Yellowstone wildlife biologist, said the couple generally acted correctly in trying to back away, and that the appropriate action when attacked is to play dead.
Running is not advised, and most biologists recommend standing still when a bear makes a defensive charge, which is often a bluff meant to intimidate, Gunther said.
The couple, who were visiting Yellowstone for the fourth time, were not carrying bear spray, which officials say is usually effective in deterring bear attacks.
An unusually snowy winter has meant that bears have stayed in lower elevations later into the summer than normal, Gunther said, although they are beginning to move to higher elevations as lingering snow melts away.
Bear maulings are extremely rare. Gunther said the odds of such an attack were “1 in 3 million”. The grizzly was no more likely to attack humans again after Wednesday’s encounter.
The park sees about one bear-related injury a year, Gunther said. No visitors were hurt by bears in Yellowstone last year, and the mauling marked the first human death caused by a bear in the park since 1986, the National Park Service said.
But a mother grizzly killed a man and injured two other people in an unusual night-time attack on sleeping campers just outside Yellowstone in Montana last July. The bear involved in that incident was later trapped and destroyed because the attacks were considered unprovoked and predatory.
In a separate incident that month, a different bear attacked and killed a botanist hiking in Wyoming just east of Yellowstone. That bear had been trapped and tranquilized by researchers earlier that day. It was later shot and killed.
Park officials have not yet completed their annual bear counts this year but typically find an average of about 15 females with new cubs each year, Gunther said.
Biologists believe at least 600 bears live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, while some estimates put the number at 1,000 or more.
Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston