Deflected bullet caused woman’s death during bear attack

A Yukon woman was killed by a stray bullet that her husband fired in an attempt to kill the grizzly bear that was attacking her, according to a recent coroner’s report.

Updated

A Yukon woman was killed by a stray bullet that her husband fired in an attempt to kill the grizzly bear that was attacking her, according to a recent coroner’s report.

Matthias Liniger fired several shots at the bear while it was on top of his wife, Claudia Huber. The coroner’s report, released last week, found that one of those bullets was deflected through a tree branch and struck Huber in the chest.

The incident occurred outside the couple’s home near Johnson’s Crossing in October 2014.

Yukon’s chief coroner, Kirsten Macdonald, said the series of events that led to Huber’s death was “very unusual.”

“It really just was catastrophic.”

The grizzly may initially have seen the family dog as potential prey, according to the report. Liniger called the dog inside the house after seeing the bear crossing their lawn. The bear then came up to the house and put its front paws up on the glass of one of the windows.

The glass broke under the pressure and “the bear came crashing into the living space of the home,” the report reads.

The grizzly chased the dog through the room. Liniger and Huber then ran outside and each got into one of their vehicles, and the dog ran away.

At this point, the bear turned its attention to the humans. It jumped repeatedly on the hood of the vehicle Huber was in. Liniger began honking his car horn, and the bear began to run away. But when Huber tried to run from her vehicle to Liniger’s, the bear attacked her and dragged her about 20 metres away from the house.

Liniger fired several shots at the bear with his rifle, eventually killing it.

Huber was rushed to the Teslin Community Health Centre, where she was declared dead. According to the report, an examination of her clothing at the time of the attack “did not suggest a possible gunshot wound.”

The accidental gunshot wound was discovered later, during an autopsy.

Macdonald said Liniger did everything he could to save his wife.

“He did everything that he should have done,” she said. “That attack wasn’t going to stop if (he) hadn’t shot that bear.”

She said instances of predatory bear attacks on people are very rare.

A necropsy of the bear showed that it was a 38-year-old male grizzly. It was in poor condition, with small fat stores, but it wasn’t emaciated. It weighed 170 kilograms, and had been shot twice.

“There was no evidence at the necropsy of underlying disease that would explain the unusual behaviour exhibited by this grizzly bear,” according to the report.

However, the bear had ransacked a nearby hunting camp in the three weeks prior to the attack, where it accessed a “significant amount” of human food.

Macdonald said that incident likely helped the bear associate rural properties with food. Still, she said Liniger and Huber’s property did not have any food or garbage lying around.

“Their property was spick-and-span.”

According to the report, Huber played dead during the attack, which was not the correct response.

“A predatory attack requires the victim to fight back against the bear,” it reads.

The report recommended more education to inform the public about different types of bear encounters and appropriate responses.

“There appears to be ongoing misinformation in the public, despite efforts to get this message out.”

It also recommended more education for hunting camps and rural property owners about removing food and other bear attractants.

Kris Gustafson, director of conservation officer services with Environment Yukon, said playing dead is the right tactic when a bear makes a defensive attack – for instance, if it’s protecting its cubs or a food source. In that case, he said, the best strategy is to lie face down and cover one’s head and neck.

But in the rare case of a predatory attack, “you’re fighting for your life,” he said.

Gustafson said he is taking the recommendations from the coroner’s report seriously, and the department will take a look at its bear safety communication strategy over the winter.

Recommendations about what to do in case of a bear encounter can be found on Environment Yukon’s website. The department also publishes a bear safety booklet titled “How you can stay safe in bear country.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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