Archived Outdoors

Bear caused 2020 Smokies death, autopsy shows

Warren Bielenberg photo Warren Bielenberg photo

A man found dead in the Hazel Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last September likely died due to a bear attack, making it the second bear-related fatality in the park’s history.

The news comes following release of a final report from the N.C. Chief Medical Examiner identifying trauma from the attack as the most likely cause of death.

Patrick Madura, a 43-year-old Illinois resident, was found dead on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, after backpackers hiking the Hazel Creek Trail found an unoccupied tent at Campsite 82 with a single sleeping bag inside. Across the creek, they discovered human remains and a scavenging bear. The hikers left quickly to find enough cell coverage, and dispatch received word of the incident by 7 p.m.

Law enforcement rangers and wildlife officers were dispatched to the scene immediately, arriving shortly after midnight and confirming the report of a deceased adult human male. They also observed a bear actively scavenging the remains, leading the rangers to euthanize the animal. 

At the time, park officials were unsure whether the bear had caused Madura’s death or whether it had come across his body after he died. In 2018, a bear was found scavenging a man’s body about 2 miles from Cades Cove, but an autopsy found the man had died due to a methamphetamine overdose, with the bear finding the body after it was dead.

In both instances, the park’s wildlife biologists decided that euthanization was necessary because the bear in question had already learned that human bodies can be a food source. The animal that killed Madura was a 240-pound adult male in good health and with no abnormalities.

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"Bears are an iconic symbol in the Smokies, but they are also dangerous wild animals, and their behavior is sometimes unpredictable," said Bill Stiver, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist. "There are inherent risks associated with hiking and camping in bear country. Black bears are the largest predator in the park, and although rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injury and death.”

Park visitors should always take bear safety precautions. These include hiking in groups of three or more, carrying bear spray, complying with all backcountry closures, properly following food storage regulations, and remaining at a safe viewing distance from bears at all times.  

If attacked by a black bear, rangers strongly recommend fighting back with any object available. Remember that the bear may view you as prey. In this circumstance, people should attempt to look large and not run or turn away from the bear.  
   
The park takes active measures in the backcountry to prevent human-bear conflicts, including providing aerial storage cables for backpackers to hang their gear and food, educating visitors on how to respond if a bear is encountered on the trail or in a campsite, and closing backcountry campsites when bear activity is reportedly high in a given area.    

For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm.

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