A tragic loss.

By Dr. Lynn Rogers

By now, everyone who follows bear news knows that Tim Treadwell and his friend Amie Huguenard were killed by a grizzly bear in Katmai National Park on October 5, 2003.   The picture of the tragic scene in Kaflia Bay is vivid in my mind because that is one of the places I visited Tim during my trips to observe grizzlies.

The last person to speak to Tim was his friend Jewel Palovak, co-author of Tim´s book “Among Grizzlies.’  He and Amie called her by satellite phone on Sunday afternoon, October 5, to share the good news that they had finally seen a favorite bear that Tim was worried about and they could now come home.  Earlier, Tim had phoned his pilot friend Willy Hall to bring his float-plane to pick them up on the beach on Monday.  Sunday evening, Tim heard a bear outside the tent and went out to see it.  This was not unusual because the tent was in a network of bear trails made by one of the densest populations of grizzlies in the world.  As he went out, he turned on his sound recorder.  For the next three minutes, Tim is heard shouting that the bear is attacking him.  Amie is telling him to play dead and then to fight back.  Tim, probably being held by the bear, tells her to hit the bear.  The sounds ended.  The next day, Pilot Willy Hall arrived and flew over the camp and saw a flattened tent and a large bear on a body.  He buzzed the bear to scare it off, but it stayed.  Willy landed on the lake and called Alaska State Troopers in Kodiak and National Park Rangers in King Salmon.  The Rangers arrived first and walked to the top of a knob that overlooks the camp.  An old male grizzly charged out of the bushes, and they killed it.  

They estimated that it weighed over a thousand pounds despite being underweight and having bad teeth.  At the campsite, they found the mostly eaten remains of Tim and Amie partially buried with torn clothing scattered about.  The tent was flattened but not torn.  Any food was secured in bear-proof containers.  A bear wandered through the campsite but paid scarce attention to the carcasses, the camp, or the people.  As the rangers were loading the camping equipment and remains, a third bear approached persistently, and they killed it.  This one was a young male maybe three years old.  They flew out.   Two days later, they returned to examine the stomach contents of the dead bears.  The larger bear contained human remains and clothing.  The smaller bear was eaten by other bears, and only its head remained.  There was nothing left to determine whether it had fed on the victims.

For over twelve years, Tim had camped and lived among the bears of Katmai National Park   I had visited him at some of the locations he wrote about in his book: The Meadow, The Forbidden Zone, and The Maze (Kaflia Bay, where he was killed).  He dressed consistently in black, which probably helped the bears recognize him.  They learned that Tim was not a threat, and they accepted him as part of the woodwork.  He knew the bears individually.  He knew their quirks and moods and  told me their names.  Close interactions, even touching, were commonplace for over twelve years between Tim and certain bears with whom he shared a mutual trust.  For the most part, the bears calmly grazed, fished, clammed, and socialized with scant attention to Tim.  The bears probably assessed Tim´s demeanor constantly, just as he assessed theirs, but Tim was trusting and nonthreatening, and so were the bears.  For example, I photographed a mother that calmly stopped to play with her cub on the beach with Tim sitting less than ten feet away.  When she left, he told me her name and that he had known her for years.  The video camera that the Rangers found at Tim´s campsite on October 6 contained recent footage of bears within a few feet of Tim and Amie.

Tim was not without judgment or fear.  Certain bears made him wary.  In his book, he named Demon as a bear that scared him at The Maze (Kaflia Bay).  He confided to me “A person could get killed out here.’  Scary moments were rare enough, though, that he saw no need for an electric fence and he abandoned pepper spray.  The bears were basically timid, as I can attest.  
In my hundreds of hours of working closely with these bears, I have never felt the slightest bit threatened.

No one will ever know what possessed the bear to kill Tim and Amie the evening of October 5.  It is possible that it was a bear that Tim had never met.  Clint Hlebechuk, who also spends his summers camping and hiking in Katmai National Park, told me that when he gets far into the interior there are big old males that he never sees on the beach.  He said that silver salmon and pink salmon runs were down this year, making it less likely that adequate numbers of salmon were reaching the interior areas.  This would draw out hungry bears and increase competition at the mouths of the few streams that have late salmon runs like the stream in Kaflia Bay.

There is no way to tell which of the bears that were killed at the campsite killed Tim and Amie.  A possible scenario is that the smaller bear killed Tim and Amie and later lost their carcasses to the bigger bear, as is common.

No one can explain what triggers predatory behavior in grizzlies.  One can only say that it is rare.   About eighty percent of the killings by grizzlies are by mothers defending their cubs.   Another ten percent or so are by grizzlies defending food caches.  Only a handful are predatory attacks.

Tim was a friend of the bears.  His passion was to share his observations that grizzlies are not the ferocious beasts we have always thought them to be.  He had a childlike quality that helped him educate the thousands of children he visited in classrooms every year.  He also taught that people should not approach wild animals and do what he does, and his website www.grizzlypeople.com  goes on teaching that today.  Another of Tim´s purposes was to deter poachers who sometimes boat along the coast of Katmai National Park after the tourists leave.  The protected bears of Katmai are among the largest grizzlies in the world.  They live longer than bears in hunting areas, and they grow to truly trophy size.  Tim wanted to stop poachers from shooting his friends and slipping away undetected.

The last thing Tim and Amie would have wanted is to become notorious for being the first fatalities in the history of the Park.  Tim once told our mutual friend, Kent Fredrikson, who similarly spends his summers camping and walking among Katmai grizzlies, “If they ever come to pick me up and find me dead, I hope they just bury me and don't say a word.’  With all the publicity surrounding this tragedy, I personally hope that people will not lose sight of the rarity of this kind of event.