Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife officers and personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services lethally removed three black bears over the weekend, following a trio of bear attacks within the last month that resulted in the closures of campgrounds near Payson.
Three Valley residents — an Apache Junction woman on May 31, a Glendale man on June 21, and a Tempe man on June 24 — were attacked by the bears, according to information from Arizona Game and Fish.
Pedro “Pete” Baca, 30, of Tempe, was critically injured about 5 a.m. on Sunday at the Ponderosa campground when a bear bit him on multiple parts of his body, including his head as he lay sleeping next to his wife and infant child. On Tuesday, Baca was upgraded to fair condition at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn hospital and is improving, according to information from Arizona Game and Fish.
The first of two bears killed on Sunday was a young adult male weighing around 160 pounds, and the second bear was a female weighing approximately 300 pounds. Dogs had tracked the bears from a scent trail near the campground. Officials first had lethally removed a bear on Friday when it was trailed by hounds, close to the site of the second attack near Tonto Village and Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery.
The removal of the bears also has caused the Ponderosa Campground and two others to be closed, possibly until July 15 while the incidents are under review, according to Game and Fish. The Ponderosa Campground is 12 miles northeast of Payson.
The Sharp Creek and Christopher Creek campgrounds are closed and campers have been evacuated, officials said.
The Christopher Creek Campground is 19 miles northeast of Payson on Arizona 260 while the Sharp Creek Campground is 23 miles northeast of Payson on the south side of Arizona 260.
Game and Fish officials said it was necessary to lethally remove the bears because of their aggressive, predatory behavior. Also, the only means of testing for rabies is by having the animal’s carcass.
Game and Fish has conducted forensic investigations on all three victims’ personal belongings and camping equipment to recover DNA samples. Those samples, as well as some tissue from the bears that were removed, were scheduled to be flown to the Wyoming Game and Fish Forensic and Fish Health Laboratory on Tuesday for analysis to determine whether the bears were the ones responsible for the earlier maulings.
“Until we receive the results of the DNA analysis, we will not know whether these three recent attacks can be attributed to one bear or three different bears. DNA examination is critical in this case for helping prove or disprove a link between the attacks,” said Rod Lucas, regional supervisor for Game and Fish in an agency-issued statement.
Game and Fish set bear culvert traps following the first incident on May 31 involving an Apache Junction woman, but had yet to catch a bear. A trap was set in the Ponderosa Campground at the time of the latest attack.
“By setting culvert traps in the area where the attacks have occurred, we are more likely to catch the problem bear and not other bears that are not creating public safety issues,” Lucas said. “Our wildlife officers chose their profession because of their love for wildlife and the outdoors. They do not enjoy destroying animals, but the burden of public safety and active management of wildlife dictates an aggressive approach, and efforts will continue until the offending animal is found or it is no longer feasible to continue operations.”
With the state’s drought and scarce wildlife food resources, more and more wildlife are moving into areas that are on the fringe of wildlands, looking for food. Bears are particularly attracted to campground areas where they often find easy access to garbage and food sources.
Bear attacks on humans are rare despite Arizona’s robust population of 2,500 to 3,000 bears. Sunday’s attack is only the 10th documented bear attack in Arizona since 1990, but the third this year.
Slightly less than a year ago, Lana Hollingsworth, 61, of Gilbert died days after she was mauled by a bear in Pinetop.
For more information about the closure of the campgrounds and areas near them, visit www.fs.usda.gov/tonto or call the Payson Ranger District offices at (928) 474-7900.
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