It was a tragedy that couldn’t have been prevented, a predatory attack by a starving bear that they would barely have had time to react to.
That was the main conclusion of the investigation into the deaths of Whitehorse teacher Valérie Théorêt, 37, and her daughter, 10-month-old Adèle Roesholt, who were killed by a grizzly bear near their remote trapper’s cabin in northeastern Yukon last year.
“This was a tragic chance occurrence,” Environment Yukon’s director of conservation officer services, Gordon Hitchcock, said at a press conference the afternoon of March 27, which coincided with the release of a report by the Yukon Coroner’s Service into Théorêt and Adèle’s deaths.
“… All available evidence suggests there was nothing Valérie could have done to stop this predatory attack.”
According to the coroner’s report, Théorêt, her partner, Gjermund Roesholt, and their infant daughter Adèle Roesholt had flown to their trapline cabin on Einarson Lake, about 200 kilometres northeast of Mayo, on Oct. 4, 2018.
The family, who had extensive outdoor experience, had intended to stay at the cabin, living off the land and trapping until just after the new year, when Théorêt was scheduled to begin teaching again.
The morning of Nov. 26, 2018, the report continues, Gjermund left the cabin around 9:30 a.m. on a snowmobile to check on one of the family’s traplines. It snowed lightly, and as he was making his return trip around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, he noticed fresh bear tracks that were following his snowmobile tracks from that morning, heading towards the cabin.
The bear tracks did not go all the way to the structure.
Gjermund arrived at the cabin just before 3 p.m., and noticing no other tracks around, initially assumed that Théorêt and Adèle were sleeping. When he found no one in the cabin, though, he began walking towards a sauna on the property, “some distance away,” while calling Théorêt and Adèle’s names.
He carried a loaded 7 mm Remington Magnum rifle with him, the report says, and “as his concern heightened, he had this at the ready.”
Théorêt and Adèle were not at the sauna, and Gjermund began following a small trapline trail.
About 240 metres away from the cabin, the report says, he heard a growl, and a grizzly bear came out of the bush about 15 metres away, charging directly at him.
When the animal was about two metres away, Gjermund fired two shots at it, and then another two after the bear dropped to the ground, fatally injuring it.
He found Théorêt laying near where the bear fell and “was quickly able to discern that she was no longer alive.” Adèle’s remains were nearby.
Gjermund covered the bodies and activated his emergency SPOT alarm.
He then went back to the cabin and waited until help arrived the next morning.
The subsequent investigation by conservation officers and the Yukon Coroner’s Service found that the bear in the attack was an emaciated 18-year-old male grizzly that would not have been able to hibernate due to its complete lack of body fat. In its apparent desperation to avoid starvation, it had eaten a porcupine — unusual prey for bears — and was likely in chronic and severe pain due to the quills in its face, paws and digestive system, from its mouth to its stomach.
The bear, which had been passing through the area, appeared to have detected that something else was on the trail — Théorêt, with Adèle in a carrier on her back — and hid under the cover of thick spruce tree branches about two metres away from the trail.
It was from there it launched its attack, the report says, and after killing the two, dragged their bodies off the trail.
Théorêt’s injuries “were consistent with the bear striking out and biting her” and would have “quickly proved to be fatal,” while Adèle’s injuries “were instantly incompatible with life.”
“Investigators conclude that this bear was acting entirely predatory in nature throughout the attack on Valérie and Adèle,” the report says, classifying their deaths as accidental.
At the press conference, Hitchcock and Yukon Chief Coroner Heather Jones said that the attack happened so quickly, Théorêt, even if she had been carrying bear spray or a firearm, would not have had time to react or fight back.
The cabin and surrounding space were also kept clean and free of attractants, Hitchcock noted — the family kept their trapline bait, food and offal stored separately and securely from their living quarters.
There was no evidence of any other bear activity around the camp.
“What makes this incident especially tragic is that the family took proper precautions to prevent something like this from happening,” Hitchcock said.
“…To say the victims were at the wrong place at the wrong time sounds trite, but our investigation shows that, more than anything else, this was an unfortunate tragedy and little could have been done to prevent it.”
Jones added that the case had been “very difficult” for everyone involved.
The report makes three recommendations to Environment Yukon — that the department make “continued efforts to inform the public that bear encounters can happen in the Yukon anywhere and during any season;” to continue educating hunters and trappers to “ensure they are exercising caution” when out in the bush; and to continue “education efforts to emphasize the high risk injured/distress bears may pose in all settings and environments at all times of the year.”
Hitchcock said the department accepts the recommendations.
Fatal bear attacks are rare in the Yukon. One of the last documented human deaths involving a bear encounter took place in October 2014, when 42-year-old Claudia Huber was mauled by a grizzly bear outside her home near Johnson’s Crossing. However, a coroner’s investigation later determined that Huber had, in fact, been killed by a stray bullet that her husband had fired at the bear during the attack.
There have only been two other fatal bear attacks in the Yukon over the last 22 years — one in Ross River in 2006, and in Kluane National Park in 1996.
More to come.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org