DNA results confirm euthanized bear did not attack Ohio teen at Smokies

Gabriel and Greg Alexander

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Park rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received DNA results that show the bear euthanized after an attack on an Ohio teen, is not the same bear that attacked him.

Gabriel Alexander,16, was pulled from his hammock while camping with his father in the Hazel Creek section of the park on June 6. He was seriously injured by the bear.

Previous story: Smokies close trails, campsites after teen attacked by bear

Following the attack, park rangers set up an action plan to clear the area to begin an investigation and to collect forensic evidence. Bear hair and saliva from the victim’s equipment was collected to be used for DNA analysis. Park rangers also set up cameras, traps, and conducted foot patrols.

The following day, wildlife biologists shot a bear near campsite 84, but the bear ran off after the shots were fired. Biologists said they were unable to confirm whether the bear had been struck. On June 8, a bear was caught in a culvert trap set up at campsite 84. Biologists euthanized the bear and collected a DNA sample from the bear.

Previous story: GSMNP rangers capture, euthanize bear in weekend attack

A DNA analysis of both bears show that they were two different males.

“Due to the extreme seriousness of the bear attack and threat to human safety, we responded swiftly to secure the safety of hikers in the backcountry,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “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.”

This is the first time in history of managing bear populations in the park where wildlife biologists have had access to a lab capable of processing DNA samples in a timely manner to be of use in a bear attack, according the park officials.

Park rangers believe the bear that was shot is likely dead as no bear activity at campsite 84 has been observed since June 8 despite extensive search efforts.

“We still feel with 65 percent confidence that we have also shot the bear responsible and linked to the attack, but we regret that an uninvolved bear was also euthanized,” said park spokesperson Dana Soehn.

Park officials say they relocate about two dozen aggressive bears each year, but it’s when the bears become predatory towards people that the park takes more drastic measures.

“Those bears are incredibly dangerous, especially in a park where we have so many people out enjoying our backcountry hiking and backpacking, and we feel like it’s very dangerous to have a bear with predatory instincts to be in the trails,” said Soehn.

Rangers say thanks to a new lab, DNA tests came back much quicker than expected, and that could help them find new measures to ensure the right bear is held responsible for incidents in the park.

“It now opens the doors for a possibility that we can find a suitable location where we can humanely house an adult wild bear while we wait for analysis to come back,” said Soehn.

Rangers say this is the first black bear attack on a human in the Smokies since 2008. Backcountry campsite 84 is still closed, but rangers say there hasn’t been any bear activity there in the past two weeks. They will reevaluate this week if it can be reopened.

For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website. To report a bear incident, please call 865-436-1230.

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