Wolf Song of Alaska News

Alaska Jogger Survives Mauling by Grizzly

Year's First Attack: Sow, likely defending cubs, charged out of brush.

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / May 31, 2006

Michael Mungoven and his two dogs were jogging the backcountry trail near his Anchor Point home Sunday morning when a full-grown grizzly ripped through the brush like a 400-pound bullet.

The hunched beast stared at him.

"There was a pregnant pause, then things went to heck," Mungoven said by phone from his hospital bed in Homer on Tuesday morning.

Exactly how they went to heck, he doesn't know. He remembers falling backward to the ground beneath a frenzy of flashing teeth and sharp claws. The next several seconds were a blur.

He was on a ridge near Epperson Knob, eight miles east of the highway community and about 1,000 yards from the residential area where he lives. It was the first reported bear attack of the year in Alaska, in an area where bear encounters are on the rise, wildlife officials said.

Mungoven weighs about 150 pounds and stands 5 feet, 7 inches. He credited luck for surviving.

"It wasn't trying to kill me," said a surprisingly upbeat Mungoven, who checked out of the hospital Tuesday afternoon.

Wildlife officials said he responded perfectly.

As soon as Mungoven knew what was happening, he realized he could die. Then he remembered the bear-defense courses he'd taken for his job -- surveying soil in remote areas for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency.

As the bear attacked, Mungoven curled into a defensive ball, burying his face in his chest. At one point he yelled for his dogs, 6-year-old Labrador-Rottweilers, hoping they'd frighten the bear. They ran away.

"They were too smart," he said, laughing.

The bear tore through his neck near the jugular vein, shredding his ear and chomping down his torso. He didn't realize until later how badly the bear had ravaged him.

It munched him twice more -- he remembers that -- driving its powerful jaws into his right shoulder and butt cheek before crashing back into the alders and scrub spruce, as quickly as it came. It made mewing sounds as if talking to cubs, then rustled off, he said.

"I reckon it was 15, 20 seconds of quality time with the bear and 10 seconds of lying there," he said.

Then he forced himself to his feet and started home, he said. Covered with blood and dust, an ear dangling from his head, the stunned Mungoven walked briskly.

He held a hand over the gash in his neck. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but he felt little pain, comparable to a dog bite, he said.

"Once I saw home I felt pretty good."

His wife, Lisa Climo, was shocked he'd walked home.

"He was a real mess," she said.

She sped him 18 miles to the South Peninsula Hospital in Homer. Doctors needed 11 hours to clean the wounds, staple his neck and reattach his ear with 66 stitches, he said.

The bear missed his internal organs, he said. Bones and major blood vessels were unscathed. His shoulder suffered most -- the grizzly crunched through muscle.

"I'm remarkably all together," he said.

Brown bear encounters seem to be rising in the area, said Travis Bordner of the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement's Anchor Point detachment. Large fires in recent years may have destroyed some habitat, pushing bears into urban areas, he said. Two ambled through Homer last year, about a dozen air miles from Anchor Point, he said.

Urban growth on the Peninsula is also a factor, said Jeff Selinger, Fish and Game wildlife biologist in the Kenai area. More bears are looking for easy meals in open trash cans and trash bins, fish scraps discarded by fishermen and farm animals like chickens and goats.

Humans killed 17 bears on the Peninsula last year, most in defense of life and property. It was the second-highest kill rate in nine years, he said.

Bear attacks are rising across the state, said Tom Smith, a bear biologist in Anchorage with the U.S. Geological Survey. Bears attacked 17 people in 2004 and 2005, he said.

Alaska averaged five bear attacks a year in the five years before 2004, he said.

"Humans set these animals up," he said. "When people do things that predispose bears to investigate, or they surprise them, it's hardly the bear's fault."

The increased popularity of backcountry jogging doesn't help, said Anchorage-area Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott. Last year, a jogger near Soldotna was bitten on the head, neck and elsewhere after stumbling upon two bears near a fresh moose kill. The jogger survived.

Based on Sunday's lightning-fast attack and the mewing sounds, the bear was likely a surprised sow, he said. Sows can be especially aggressive as they protect young.

Heavy-breathing runners with pounding hearts increase the odds of a bear encounter. They're less likely to hear a bear prowling in the brush. The bear is more likely to be surprised too.

Then the bear must decide "to fight or flee," he said.

Runners should have pepper spray in hand and plan to react quickly. They should envision how they'd respond if they had five seconds or less, he said.

"You shouldn't be asking yourself why there's loud popping in the woods," you should be ready to spray a grizzly, he said.

Mungoven said his behavior will definitely change. But he won't stop jogging through the hills near his home. He loves the spectacular views of Lower Cook Inlet and Mount Augustine Volcano across the water.

But he'll be more careful, slowing down when brush thickens to listen closely for warning signs or perhaps sticking to roads in the early summer, when grizzlies prowl the alders for moose.

"It's just a matter of paying more attention," he said.

As for the bear, it's still on the loose, said Bordner, the wildlife officer. He searched for it with a shotgun to kill it, but never found it.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com or 1-907- 257-4310.

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