Park service: Bear that attacked Great Smoky camper is presumed dead

A black bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A black bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

DNA testing indicates that National Park Service workers likely killed the bear responsible for an attack on an Ohio camper this month at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – but an innocent bear was also mistakenly euthanized.

Wildlife biologists used DNA samples consisting of bear hair and saliva found on the equipment of 16-year-old Gabriel Alexander at a backcountry campsite where he and his father were camping June 6 when the attack happened, said park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.

Biologists shot at a bear near the campsite the following evening, but he ran off, the park service said in a news release.

Another bear was found in a trap the following morning and was euthanized, with a DNA sample collected for testing. The sample determined the bear was not the one that attacked, the park service said.

“Though extremely rare and regrettable, we recognize that an uninvolved bear was euthanized through this process, and we will be examining new procedures that may allow us to quickly use DNA analysis to correctly identify bears responsible for predatory attacks in the future,” Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said in the news release.

Soehn said the park service sent DNA samples to Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where DNA analysis meant to monitor bear populations has been used for the first time in the parks to search for a bear in an attack case.

“Before now, we’ve never had a lab that was able to process our samples in a timely manner,” she said.

The bear that was shot at but escaped might be the bear that attacked Alexander, the park service said. Biologists found a rifle bullet with bear hair attached – confirming the bear had been hit – and sent the hair for testing.

Soehn said the best DNA samples contain hair follicles, which the bullet sample lacked. Lab results found the wounded bear’s sample insufficient to determine a match with DNA found near the attack on Alexander.

But genetics specialists estimate a 65 percent DNA match between the two samples.

“While it is likely that the bear shot was the same involved in the attack, it cannot be confirmed without a better DNA sample,” the park service said in the news release.

No bear activity has been witnessed near the campsite since June 8, causing biologists to assume the bear died from its injury.

“We have not recovered the carcass from that bear we presume to be dead,” Soehn said.

The campsite is one of the most popular areas of the park on the North Carolina side, and it has been closed for nearly three weeks since the attack. Soehn said it may reopen this weekend.

Fowler: 704-358-5294

Twitter: @h_fowl

Related stories from Charlotte Observer