FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A three-pawed grizzly bear that turned up in Denali National Park and Preserve last summer with a bloody stump for a right front foot is back, just in time for the start of the tourist season.
The bear has been running — or hopping — around the entrance area to the 6-million-acre park for the past three weeks.
“We call him Tripawed,” park wildlife biologist Pat Owen said. “He’s got a real funny gait. It’s his right front leg and he keeps it completely off the ground. He kind of hops around.”
Actually, Owen isn’t completely sure whether it’s a male or female bear, but based on her observations and the animal’s behavior she suspects it’s a young adult male.
The bear doesn’t seem to have any problem getting around on three feet, and the wound appears to have healed completely since Owen first saw the bear last July.
“He showed up two weeks ago along the [Parks] highway,” Owen said. “He’s been very visible. A lot of people have seen him already.”
One of the first people to see the bear this spring said the bear ran across the Parks Highway and jumped a guardrail.
“They said he looked very agile,” Owen said. “I don’t think he has any trouble getting around.”
How the bear lost its paw is a mystery. One possibility is the bear got its leg caught in a trapping snare meant for a wolf or lynx and ended up losing the lower half of its leg, but Owen was quick to say that’s only one of many possibilities.
“When he first showed up last year, that was everyone’s first speculation,” Owen said of the snare theory. “He had pretty much a bloody stump at the time. It looked like a fresh wound.
“It was a really clean cut, which leads part of me to believe it might not be a trap accident,” she said. “We have no idea what happened to him.”
The bear appears to be healthy.
“He actually appears to be in pretty good shape,” Owen said. “He’s in better shape than I expected him to be. He was looking a little thin toward the end of last year.”
It’s the first time in her 23-year career at the park that Owen has seen a bear missing an appendage. After the bear showed up in the park last summer, there was speculation the park service would kill the bear because of the injury. But Owen contacted bear biologists around the country and world to inquire about bears with missing limbs or parts of limbs and how they fare.
“I found out they’re a lot more common than you’d think,” Owen said. “Pretty much everyone said they had experience with bears missing all or parts of limbs and they get along pretty well.”
Owen, who last saw the bear in September before it reappeared this spring, wasn’t surprised the bear recovered from its injury; it was more a matter of whether the injury would prevent the bear from getting enough to eat, defending itself against other bears and digging a den.
“I’ve seen bears survive some pretty horrendous stuff,” she said. “I’ve seen some pretty nasty wounds. They always seem to get over that kind of stuff. I was pretty confident he was going to get over that.”
The bear spent last summer between the park entrance and Savage River, which is located at 15 Mile on the Denali Park Road, and this spring has been seen primarily around the entrance to the park.
“He hasn’t gone very far,” Owen said.
The bear digs with one paw and hops on three legs, but other than that, behaves like an ordinary grizzly bear, Owen said.
Last week, the bear claimed a dead caribou that park officials found along the highway near the park entrance a week earlier and dragged farther off the road.
“It took him the better part of a week but he finally showed up on that carcass,” Owen said. “He spent all last week camped out on that carcass, burying it, sleeping on it and eating on it.”
The bear showed up at Riley Creek Campground last weekend, which Owen took to mean he was done with the caribou carcass.
“For now we’ll let him do his thing and see what happens,” Owen said. “He seems to get along just fine.”
Owen thought about tranquilizing the bear and putting a radio collar on it but decided that probably wasn’t necessary.
“I think he’s got enough trouble as it is already without us doing that,” she said. “He’s pretty identifiable. I don’t think we need a radio collar to keep track of him.”
If the bear continues to hang around when the tourist season begins on May 20, Owen said, park service staff will probably post signs informing tourists about the bear to avoid having to answer the same questions over and over.