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Desolation Canyon bear attacks may be linked to drought

Published: Thursday, Oct. 15 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rock Creek Ranch in Desolation Canyon was the site of a black bear attack in August.  (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Rock Creek Ranch in Desolation Canyon was the site of a black bear attack in August. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Sometimes a name says it all, like the Green River's Desolation Canyon, an 85-mile whitewater playground in southeastern Utah that's as rugged as it is remote.

Every river-running season — between mid-April and mid-September — adventurers take to its waters by the hundreds, seeking to test their mettle against some 60 rapids of every degree of difficulty. The experience also comes with a chance to learn something of the canyon's mysteries, including the ancients who left their marks on towering cliffs, or the notorious Wild Bunch gang, who adeptly blended into the scenery to confound the pursuing law.

But if you think those are head-scratchers, the Desolation's latest puzzle is another doozy: Why have three campers been attacked along the river by marauding black bears since 2003?

Wildlife experts admit they're stumped when it comes to pinning down a reason for the attacks, the most recent being the late-August mauling of 78-year-old Lou Downard in the remote Rock Creek Ranch area in Carbon County.

Downard and his daughter were sleeping outside on cots near the river's edge when the bear pounced on him shortly after midnight. Nearby family members responded to his cries for help, fighting off the bear and shooting and killing it with a .45-caliber pistol. Downard sustained multiple bites and claw marks requiring stitches.

Brad Crompton, a wildlife biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife's Southeastern region, said the bear was a mature adult male that appeared healthy.

In May 2004, a different bear ripped through tents and food bags in one camp, superficially injuring one camper before being chased into a second camp where it attacked and hurt a second man more severely. The bear was later tracked and killed.

That incident followed an attack on a man on the opposite side of the river 10 months earlier. The responsible bear was never captured.

"Three (attacks) is three too many," said Crompton, "but I think it's a freak thing. I wish I could point a finger at something in particular so we could prevent it. Sometimes there are just bad bears."

Crompton's best guess is that the attacks are linked to extended drought conditions in the area.

He said bears are out of their dens and feeding on grasses from May to June, after which they turn to berries as their main form of sustenance. Despite 2009 being a wet spring, the grasses went brown quickly. The situation was further compounded by a disappointing berry crop, leaving hungry bears in the area searching for alternatives.

Desolation Canyon's remoteness doesn't mean a shortage of people, however. Throughout the summer, Crompton said, river-running outfits are continuously camping riverside in the canyon. When coupled with the surrounding topography — steep cliffs funneling men and beasts to the same narrow strips of beach — the potential for confrontation is elevated.

Bears will follow the food, Crompton said, adding that it's not unusual for the animals to travel in the opposite direction, toward East Carbon or Sunnyside, when the apple crop comes in.

"You have deep canyons and high cliffs. Access to the top is very limited," Crompton said, explaining the bears often travel up one canyon and down the other, so every couple of days, you might find a bear drinking from the same part of the river. Throughout late summer, it's not unusual for rafters to spot bears along the banks.

Crompton doesn't see rafting companies contributing to the problem, except that they put people and bears in closer proximity. Overall, the rafting companies do a good job keeping the canyon area clean, he said.

"The culture of river runners is that they're very clean campers," Crompton said, "but you're still camping in bear country."

e-mail: chuck@desnews.com

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