Following an unprecedented string of three bear attacks in campgrounds and subdivisions near Tonto Creek, federal trackers have killed three black bears and the U.S. Forest Service has shut down three campgrounds until further notice.
Officials won’t know until at least Thursday when they get the results of DNA tests whether any of the three bears killed were involved in the attacks, but dogs tracked all three from near the Ponderosa Campground.
Game and Fish officials blamed the drought for the extremely unusual string of bear attacks, noting that the omnivorous bears must be having trouble finding enough to eat in the bone-dry conditions.
The Ponderosa, Christopher Creek and Sharp Creek campgrounds will likely remain closed until at least July 15. The campgrounds are about 12 miles east of Payson.
The three attacks include a May 31 incident at the Ponderosa Campground when a black bear ripped through a tent and clawed
a sleeping Valley woman on the head, before retreating.
The second attack took place on Thursday, June 21, when a bear entered an unfinished home in Thompson Draw about a mile from the campground and bit a sleeping construction worker on the leg. The bear retreated when the two people sleeping in the room woke and yelled. The man in that attacked suffered only minor injuries. (For an interview with the victim of that attack see page 2A).
The third and most serious attack came at 5 a.m., Sunday, June 24, when a bear tore open the tent where a Tempe man, his fiancee and her 1-year-old child were sleeping in the recently re-opened Ponderosa Campground near Tonto Village.
The bear dragged the fiercely resisting, 180-pound, 30-year-old man out of the tent, tore off a piece of his scalp and bit him several times. His name was reportedly Peter Baca, according to media reports.
“They’re hungry. They’re seeking a meal to survive today. The attack on the man in the tent on Sunday morning was absolutely predator. That bear was going to have him for a meal,” said Game and Fish Spokesman Jim Paxon.
The woman and her child escaped and roused the other campers, whose cries may have driven off the bear. One of the campers came running with a pistol and shot at the bear from close range several times, but no one knows whether he hit the bear.
Fortunately, one of the campers was a paramedic and a member of the injured man’s extended family. He bandaged the wounds and started an IV. Emergency crews arrived within half an hour of the attack and transported the man to the Payson Airport. From there, he was airlifted to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, where he underwent four hours of surgery. He was reportedly in critical condition on Monday.
Paxon said the man’s injuries were so serious he probably would have bled to death without the work of the paramedic-camper.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department called in hunters with dogs after the June 21 attack.
The bear reportedly ripped open several other tents before the nearly fatal attack.
Other media, including ABC News, reported several eyewitness accounts to that attack, including one from Carly Stoltenberg, who was camping nearby. The bear reportedly attacked another tent, without harming the occupant —and was then driven away by several campers with guns.
“It was completely surreal. I was never scared,” she told ABC News. “It just seemed like I was dreaming. It looked like a baby bear, he was so skinny — I think he was starving.”
That eyewitness account seems to conflict with some of the physical evidence, since Game and Fish officials say only a large, full-grown bear could have dragged a full grown man so easily from his tent.
Kim Bress, who was camping with Stoltenberg, told ABC News that the bear ripped open her tent, but retreated when she, her husband and son stood and yelled at him. “It was like the bear just kind of looked at us, stood up, then others managed to chase him away.”
The bear retreated — but then apparently returned to launch its near-fatal attack.
The Sunday attack threw the hunt for bears into high gear, although Game and Fish trackers had already killed a bear after the June 21 attack in Thompson Draw.
On June 22, a young, 120-pound black bear came into Tonto Village and wandered around for a time, foraging for food, before leaving. The dogs later picked up his trail and pursued the bear for about two miles until he took refuge in a tree near the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. After the hunter caught up with the dogs, he shot the bear. Officials have taken DNA samples to see if they can link the young bear to any of the three attacks.
Game and Fish called in hunters with packs of dogs on Sunday after the third attack. The dogs initially picked up a scent, but soon lost it due to high temperatures and low humidity, said Paxon.
“As long as there’s a little humidity, that scent will stay. Otherwise, it just evaporates,” said Paxon.
Game and Fish hunters spent a portion of Sunday in a Department of Public Safety helicopter flying a grid centered on the Ponderosa Campground hoping to spot bears from the air, but reported no sightings.
The hunters and their dog teams returned to the campground and to Thompson Draw on Sunday night. About a mile from Thompson Draw the dogs picked up a scent that they followed for about a mile before the bear climbed a tree, said Paxon.
The hunter shot the 160-pound male bear and brought the carcass back for DNA samples. The victim of the second attack took a look at the body and decided it was about the same size as the one that attacked him. That bear bit him, but barely punctured the skin.
The second team of dogs picked up the scent of a bear near the Ponderosa Campground later on Sunday evening. The hunter set the dogs loose and loped along behind them for what proved a grueling chase.
The dogs followed the scent of the bear for miles into the Hellsgate Wilderness. The dogs finally brought the bear to bay and forced her into a nearby tree. The hunter arrived and dispatched the bear, which proved to be a nearly 300-pound female. Paxon said the hunter found no evidence that the bear had cubs. Black bears typically give birth while in hibernation during the winter, but often don’t have young when they don’t get a lot of food in the fall.
Paxon said the bear that mauled the 180-pound man had to have been a very large bear, most likely larger than the first two bears killed. However, Paxon said officials wouldn’t have any idea whether any of the three bears were involved in the attacks until they get the DNA test results back.
He said the hunters would go out again on Monday night to look for additional bears near the campgrounds or in Thompson Draw.
Paxon said Rim Country has among the highest bear densities in the state, since the mix of chaparral, pines and shrub provide ideal bear habitat — with a great diversity of things to eat and lots of thick brush for them to move through unseen. Arizona has an estimated 3,000 black bears and Game and Fish issues about 500 permits to bear hunters annually — which usually results in a harvest of about 250 bears each year.
Paxon said Game and Fish has records of just 10 black bear attacks in Arizona since 1990, including a fatal attack near Forest Lakes atop the Rim last year and the three recent attacks here.
Paxon said people shouldn’t be paranoid about the possibility of bear attacks, but should give any bears they see a wide berth, pack food out of reach and never feed bears.
“We don’t intend to be crass,” said Paxon, “but people need to understand that a fed bear is a dead bear.” He said game officials learned that lesson painfully some years ago when the careless disposal of trash in Yellowstone National Park led to a series of fatal grizzly attacks.
“These bears aren’t cute. They’re wild animals. It’s not responsible if you don’t secure your trash — and for heaven’s sake don’t be feeding these bears.”