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Back-to-back black bear maulings in Alaska are seen as coincidences

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Experts say back-to-back fatal maulings of people by black bears in Alaska appear to be flukes by rogue bears but warn that people venturing into bear habitat should always carry bear repellent spray or guns.

On Monday, a worker at a remote gold exploration site was mauled to death. A second worker was injured by the same black bear. In the earlier attack, a black bear killed a 16-year-old runner Sunday who got lost competing in a mountain race south of Anchorage.   

The Bird Ridge Race organizers will meet to discuss if new safety precautions should met after the teen's death, CBS affiliate KTVA reports. Race Director Brad Precosky told KTVA several considerations will be considered, including  requiring racers to acquaint themselves with the trail before the race and asking junior racers to come down the mountain in pairs when they have finished their run.  

Such predatory maulings by black bears are extremely rare, akin to being struck by lightning, state Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said.

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"To have two in two days is an anomaly," he said. "It just doesn't happen."

Attacks by brown or grizzly bears are far more common, particularly in defensive actions such as when a female bear is protecting her cubs, experts said.

Now-retired state bear biologist John Hechtel tracked Alaska's fatal bear maulings between 1980 and 2014 and counted only three fatal maulings by black bears. There were 15 killings of people by brown or grizzly bears during the same period and one fatal mauling by a polar bear.

Hechtel said he can't say why the most recent black bear attacks occurred, given so much remains unknown. But he doesn't believe it points to any kind of trend.

"I think it's just a coincidence," he said. "It does't necessarily mean there's anything related."

The best defense against bear attacks, say Hechtel and others, is for people who head into Alaska's back country to carry bear repellant or guns with them. Hechtel is an advocate for carrying bear repellant, however, saying it's a safer alternative than guns for people who aren't sharpshooters.

A nerve-wracking encounter with a black bear several years ago prompted Juneau mountain runner Dan Lesh to begin carrying bear repellant spray on his excursions.

A black bear began stalking him at Blackerby Ridge near town, coming within 30 feet of him. Then a running partner joined him, and the two made it out together. They ended up warning four arriving hikers, hiking back with them to point out the bear. The animal then began approaching the group of six, and that's when they decided to leave the mountain.

Lesh said this week's deaths are a key topic of conversation among Juneau runners. "It hits home," he said.

But he quickly added he will not give up running in the wilderness. "These are low-probability events," Lesh said.

Neither will Juneau mountain runner John Nagel. "Heck no," he said.

There were 15 killings of people by brown or grizzly bears during the same period and one fatal mauling by a polar bear. 

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