‘Predatory’ grizzly bear killed Montana camper Leah Lokan, officials say

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Early on July 6, 2021, Leah Lokan woke up to a 417-pound grizzly bear just feet from her tent, so close she heard the bear “blow” at her head.

“Bear! Bear!” Lokan shouted, prompting Joe and Kim Cole – two other cyclists camping in the small town of Ovando as they rode through Montana – to come out of their nearby tent, armed with bear spray and demanding as much as possible, according a 26-page report addressed by the executive body of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee earlier this month.

After spooking him, Lokan, a 65-year-old visitor from Chico, Calif., moved food from her tent to a nearby building. She armed herself with bear spray. She declined an offer to stay at a hotel for the night. Afterwards, she and the Coles returned to their respective tents.

Lokan’s additional precautionary measures were not enough. The bear returned about an hour after the first encounter and mauled her to death.

A year later, wildlife officials said the bear that killed her had developed “predatory instincts”. Although they could not determine exactly how such an instinct evolved, the food and toiletries inside and near Lokan’s tent, as well as the lingering smell of cooked meals from the celebrations of the 4th of July picnic, probably played a role.

“While foraging under cover of darkness in Ovando, perhaps due to a simple movement of the sleeping victim, or a certain sound made by the victim, the bear reacted,” wrote the committee’s review panel in its Jan. 4 report, which was discussed earlier this month at the executive body’s summer meeting. The 11-member review committee included officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the US Fish and Wildlife Service; and the United States Forest Service.

Such predatory behavior is rare, although many black bears and grizzly bears living in the contiguous United States exhibit some degree of habituation, officials said in the report. To survive, bears must be “unresponsive” to humans if they are to take advantage of “rich human-dominated low-lying habitats”.

And most do, although they have become “mildly food conditioned” through occasional encounters with unnatural food sources such as garbage, grain and bird feeders, according to the report.

By July 2021, the bear that killed Lokan had gone beyond “unresponsive”.

Grizzly bear kills bicyclist in Montana after pulling her from tent

Lokan had rode with his sister and their friend in the Tour Divide, an annual bike ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, an approximately 2,700-mile stretch that begins in Alberta, Canada, and ends at the US-Mexico border at Antelope. Wells, New Mexico

Ovando, a town of fewer than 100 people in the western part of the state, is a popular oasis along the route, according to the report. Thousands of cyclists stop in town during the summer to eat, camp for the night or stay at a hotel.

While Lokan’s sister and friend chose to hole up in a hotel the night of July 5, Lokan chose to camp behind the Brand bar museum with the Coles, whom they had met on their travels. She pitched her tent around 7 p.m.

At that time, the grizzly was about 4 miles to the west and was trying to break into a trailer, according to the committee’s report.

Eight hours later, the bear made its way into Lokan’s camp, puffing at its head and ringing the alarm that would scare it back into the woods.

Lokan tried to make his camp safer for bears, according to the report. Although she moved her snacks and lentils out of the tent to a nearby building, the bags she kept her toiletries in still smelled of the dried blueberries they once contained, investigators said. Plus, she still had food — beef jerky, trail mix, granola bars, a baked potato — in the panniers draped over her bike, which was about 10 feet from her tent.

At around 4:05 a.m., the Coles were awakened once more. But this time it wasn’t Lokan’s screams that woke them up but the sound of the bear attacking him. Joe Cole unzipped their tent and roared in an attempt to scare her off. His wife joined in, blowing a whistle. Coming out of the tent, the Coles saw the bear “jump up and down” on Lokan and his tent. Joe Cole moved forward, pepper spraying him.

“The bear made eye contact with Joe, then looked away as they approached, turned and left,” the report said.

Although officials credited Cole’s “aggressive response and action” with once again scaring the bear away, the damage was done. Rescuers found “no obvious signs of life” while treating Lokan. Authorities would later determine his death was “instantaneous” after the bear snapped his neck and severed his spinal cord. The medical examiner noted that she also had severe cuts to her head, neck, shoulders and back.

The grizzly evaded wildlife authorities for days amid reports of a bear raiding chicken coops, looting trash cans and killing deer. But just after midnight on July 9, US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service officers shot the bear five times, killing it. Later DNA tests confirmed that it was the bear that attacked Lokan.

In their report, officials made several recommendations for campers in the wake of Lokan’s death. They encouraged people to keep food or anything that smelled good, like toothpaste or lotion, away from tents; pitch tents at least 100 feet from where the food was cooked; and not to return if a bear approaches an occupied tent.

Investigators found a nearly empty canister of pepper spray inside Lokan’s tent and evidence that she had used it during the attack. In the report, officials said Lokan’s family suggested manufacturers add whistles to bear spray cans that would sound when someone pulled the trigger. The noise would serve two purposes: to alert others to danger and to further harass the bear.

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