DNA testing failed to link any of the three bears killed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department last week after a series of attacks on people near the Ponderosa Campground this month. Additional testing could eventually link one of the bears to the third attack, according to a statement released Thursday.
In the meantime, Game and Fish says it has stopped hunting any more black bears pending results.
“We changed our methodology,” said Tim Holt, field supervisor with Game and Fish.
Instead of going out at night with guns and dogs to hunt the bears, Game and Fish officers are now monitoring the areas around Ponderosa Campground, Thompson Draw and several bear traps set throughout the area.
“The thought being that the bears will return,” he said.
Officers killed a bear late Saturday night and two others Sunday evening. All three bears tested negative for rabies.
DNA results from the Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Laboratory showed two of the bears killed did not make the most violent attack Sunday. It is unclear if the third bear killed was responsible.
“Additional DNA analysis is being conducted using different samples from that incident in an attempt to arrive at a more conclusive decision,” according to Game and Fish.
“The negative rabies tests helped us rule out that the bears that we removed, and that may be responsible for the attacks, were not behaving aggressively due to the rabies virus,” said Dr. Anne Justice-Allen, Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife veterinarian.
Game and Fish could not collect enough DNA material from the scene of the first two attacks to confirm if any of the bears killed are responsible.
Those victims will likely never know if the bear that attacked them was killed.
The first and third black bear attacks occurred on May 31 and June 24, respectively, at the Ponderosa Campground just east of Payson. The second attack took place on June 21 in the Thompson Draw II area, which is approximately one mile from the campground.
Carly Stein Stoltenberg and her family were camping just one space over when the third bear attack occurred Sunday.
A black bear pulled Peter Baca, 30, of Tempe, from his tent in the early morning hours, tearing open his scalp. Stoltenberg tried to comfort Baca as a medic worked to bandage up his wounds.
Baca is expected to make a full recovery after undergoing surgery Sunday.
Speaking from her Valley home Wednesday, Stoltenberg said she still could not believe the attack had occurred, but felt lucky her family and friends were not also injured.
The bear approached the Stoltenberg’s camp just minutes before it went to Baca’s, ripping open a friend’s tent, who was able to scare the bear away.
Stoltenberg said a stern warning from a U.S. Forest Service ranger just a day before the attack likely helped her and her friends survive.
Baca’s family is asking campers and outdoor recreationists to stay alert when camping outdoors in bear country.
While the investigation shows that Baca had taken the proper precautions to secure his food and garbage, officers believe that the bear responsible for the attack had already been habituated and conditioned to people and came to expect to find food or garbage in human-inhabited areas.
Stoltenberg, who has camped at Ponderosa several times before, agrees with this assessment.
She said she had never seen more than a squirrel before at the campground.
When she heard about the initial attack, she figured it must be an isolated incident.
“I thought it was a fluke occurrence almost like being struck by lightning,” she said.
Then, when Stoltenberg heard about the second attack, also near the campground, she questioned if her family and her friends should cancel their camping trip.
“I called the campground about it and they said they were still open,” she said. “I figured that if it was a big problem they would close the campground.”
When Stoltenberg arrived at Ponderosa with her friends, the Bress and Parys families, the campground host told her the media had sensationalized the attacks.
Shortly after arriving, a park ranger made stops at each campsite, warning campers about the recent attacks and what precautions to take. “We got a good lesson from her,” Stoltenberg said.
On Saturday, the group ate dinner early, making sure they had time to clean up their campsite.
Around 4:45 a.m., Stoltenberg said she heard people talking and making noise and initially thought they were being rude.
“Then I started hearing screams,” she said. “I turned and looked out through the mesh of our tent and saw Tim and Gary’s tent shaking and then another tent shaking and then I saw the bear.
“My initial reaction was I thought someone was dressed in a bear suit.”
Stoltenberg’s husband, Peter, grabbed his gun, while Stoltenberg told her 16-year-old daughter to grab her younger brother and sister and get in the car.
Peter and Stoltenberg shouted at the bear and it meandered away.
Peter followed the bear, shooting at in hopes it would leave the campground.
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg’s friend examined the damage to their tent. The bear had clawed through the mesh siding, leaving a gaping hole. Luckily, no one was injured.
Several minutes later, Stoltenberg heard screams coming from A8, the site next to hers.
She found Baca sitting on the ground, another camper, an off-duty EMT, bandaging his head.
Stoltenberg, a speech pathologist, said she was encouraged to see Baca still knew who he was, where he was and what had happened.
“He was very subdued like he was in shock,” she said. “He was not screaming at all.”
The Baca campsite was a mess, their tent torn to shreds, newspaper and personal belongings strewn about.
Baca’s girlfriend, Frankie Gurule, told Stoltenberg the bear had clawed its way into the tent and taken a hold of Baca.
She grabbed her 1-year-old son and ran out of the tent, putting the baby down in the middle of the street and then running back to scare the bear away.
“She saw him being dragged away by the head,” Stoltenberg said.
Gurule reportedly threw rocks at the bear and it ran away.
“She was just a fighter trying to protect her family,” she said. “She was being very brave.”
As paramedics took Baca away, he reportedly told Gurule he never wanted to go camping again.
This was Baca’s first time camping — a belated Father’s Day gift.
The EMT that helped Baca later drove Gurule and her baby back to the Valley.
Stoltenberg said the bear looked no bigger than a dog and appeared far from menacing.
“It looked like a cute little bear.”
Game and Fish says it will continue surveillance and trapping efforts.
“Our wildlife officers chose their profession because of their love for wildlife and the outdoors. They do not enjoy destroying animals, but safeguarding the public in instances such as these dictates an aggressive approach. The offending animals’ actions are bold and extremely predatory in nature, and still remain a threat,” said Rod Lucas, regional supervisor for Game and Fish.
Sharp Creek, Ponderosa and Christopher Creek campgrounds remain closed. The campgrounds will be closed until at least July 15, when Game and Fish will re-evaluate the closures.