Eagle River hiker died in bear mauling, autopsy confirms
Both a hiker whose body was found on an Eagle River trail and a searcher looking for him were victims of brown-bear maulings, state officials said Friday amid unsuccessful search efforts for the animal or animals involved.
The state medical examiner's office confirmed that 44-year-old Michael Soltis was killed by a bear, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Ken Marsh said Friday. Anchorage police had originally declared Soltis' death the result of a mauling after his body was found off Hiland Road on Wednesday, but Fish and Game declined to do so pending the results of an autopsy.
“This doesn't come as a big surprise, but it's good to have it confirmed by the medical examiner's office to have it for sure,” Marsh said Friday.
There wasn't any evidence at the scene which suggested another cause of death for Soltis, according to Marsh.
“It's strictly because we're a data-driven agency, and we're not going to say the cause of death is something that hasn't been established by professional means,” Marsh said.
Biologists were still looking Friday for the bear involved in the mauling of the searcher, who survived with leg injuries. There were signs of bear activity in the area overnight Thursday, Marsh said, including fresh tracks and sightings on bear cameras, but it wasn't clear whether they were linked to any bear involved in the maulings.
Biologists haven't confirmed that Soltis and the injured searcher were mauled by the same bear, according to Marsh. It's possible that one bear killed the hiker, who was reported missing Monday, and that another bear protected his body as a food source and attacked the searcher.
"It's impossible to say without DNA analysis," Marsh said. "We have taken hair from both scenes, and that's still in the lab."
There aren't any plans to systematically cull bears near the mauling site, which Marsh deemed a "high bear density" area adjacent to Chugach State Park, in part because there are no witnesses to Soltis' death who can describe the animal involved.
This week's mauling is a different situation, Marsh said, than the area's last fatal bear mauling a year ago: the death of 16-year-old Patrick "Jack" Cooper after he was attacked by a black bear during the 2017 Bird Ridge Race.
In that case, the bear responsible was seen, shot and wounded by a park ranger before fled and was hunted down, because biologists had a specific description of the lone animal responsible and were able to spare bears that didn't match it.
"In that situation, we ended up killing four bears before we discovered the one that had the wounds," Marsh said. "We could find bears (in Eagle River) and we could start killing bears, but we're not going to do that in this case."
By Thursday afternoon, Fish and Game had set multiple traps to capture the bear, with a biologist flying in an Alaska State Troopers helicopter to help spot the animal. Staff had also placed warning signs around the informal “social trail” on which the injury mauling occurred.
“It has been well signed and we would ask people to stay away from that,” Marsh said. “As far as surrounding trails, use your own judgment.”
Hikers in Alaska’s backcountry should travel in groups, Marsh said, carry some form of bear deterrent – either bear spray or a firearm – and have someone on hand trained to use it. More importantly, however, hikers should try to spot bears and make noise to avoid surprising them.
“Bear attacks happen very quickly, and you might not get to use your deterrent,” Marsh said. “The best deterrent is to prevent the attack entirely by making noise and being alert.”
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