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Yellowstone on alert after deadly bear mauling

Rangers blocked tourists from visiting one of Yellowstone National Park's most popular destinations after a  grizzly bear mauled a backcountry hiker to death.
Access to an area of the Wapiti Lake inside Yellowstone National Park is blocked Thursday after a bear mauling Wednesday killed a hiker.Matt Volz / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Rangers blocked tourists from visiting one of Yellowstone National Park's most popular destinations Thursday after a female grizzly bear mauled a backcountry hiker to death.

It was the first fatal grizzly attack inside the park in 25 years — but the third in the Yellowstone region in just over a year.

The attack occurred in an area that is one of Yellowstone's top attractions, and busloads of tourists normally gather there to take in the view from Artist's Point, one of the park's most iconic. A stunning waterfall drops hundreds of feet in the canyon, and trails along both canyon rims are normally crawling with tourists.

The victim was identified as Brian Matayoshi, 57, of Torrance, Calif. His wife escaped serious injury, park officials said.

Park spokesman Al Nash said the couple saw the bear and her cubs twice on their hike. The first time, they continued hiking. The second time, the grizzly charged them and the man told his wife to run.

"In an apparent attempt to defend a perceived threat to her cubs, the bear attacked and fatally wounded the man," the National Park Service said in a statement.

Nash said Yellowstone typically does not try to euthanize or remove a bear that attacks if it is seen as trying to protect its cubs.

Rangers believe the bear instinctively charged to protect her young. The bear had never been documented before, never been tagged, and there was no reason to believe it had interacted with humans before, Nash said.

The decision not to track and kill the bear isn't unprecedented.

In nearby Grand Teton National Park, officials decided not to intervene with a grizzly that wounded a man there in 2007. This summer, the same bear and her cubs have drawn crowds of tourists to roadsides in the park.

Marilyn Matayoshi told park officials she didn't see the bear attack her husband. When the bear went for her, Nash said, she dropped to the ground. The grizzly lifted her off the ground by the day pack she was wearing, then dropped her.

After the bear left, she called out and nearby hikers came to her aid. The woman may have had scrapes and bruises but didn't seek medical attention.

Yellowstone and surrounding areas are home at least 600 grizzlies — and some say more than 1,000. Once rare to behold, grizzlies have become an almost routine cause of curious tourists lining up at Yellowstone's roadsides at the height of summer season.

Some visitors said they didn't know about the attack. Tourists staying at a campground in nearby Canyon Village said no rangers or park personnel told them about it.

Pavel and Igor Srom, visitors from the Czech Republic, said they saw groups of people hike around the barricades early Thursday. They stopped when a passing maintenance worker told them a bear had been seen, and park rangers soon arrived to turn away everyone.

Officials closed backcountry campgrounds in the area. The Wapiti Lake trailhead has a bear warning sign.

While lamenting the death, officials said they didn't want to overemphasize the danger to visitors.

"This is a wild and natural park," said Diane Shober, director of the state Wyoming Travel and Tourism agency. "At the same time, the likelihood of this happening again is small."

It was the park's first fatal grizzly mauling since 1986, but the third in the Yellowstone region in just over a year amid ever-growing numbers of grizzlies and tourists roaming the same wild landscape of scalding-hot geysers and sweeping mountain vistas.

Tourists have been flooding into Yellowstone in record numbers: 3.6 million last year, up 10 percent from 2009's 3.3 million, also a record.

In June 2010, a grizzly just released after being tranquilized for study killed an Illinois man hiking outside Yellowstone's east gate.

Last July, a grizzly killed a Michigan man and injured two others in a nighttime campground rampage near Cooke City, Mont., northeast of the park. That bear was trapped and destroyed because the attacks were considered to be unprovoked.

Full-grown Yellowstone bears can stand 6 feet tall and top 600 pounds. They have been known to peel off a man's face with a single swipe of their massive, clawed paws.

Their growing numbers require constant vigilance by tourists and park workers alike, said Caleb Platt, a service station manager at Canyon Village.

Platt lives most of the year in Yellowstone and said over the last eight years he has had three fairly close run-ins with grizzlies while hiking.

"When it's close and you realize it does see you, it gets the heart racing," he said.

Platt said he carries bear spray — pressurized hot-pepper oil in a can — so he's able to defend himself in case a bear gets too close on the trail.