HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A grizzly bear researcher who was attacked by a grizzly bear last month said Thursday that her recovery has been slow, but the encounter has done nothing to change her mind about her career path.
Amber Kornak, 28, was conducting research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alone in the Cabinet Mountains in Montana when the attack happened on May 17. She was collecting bear hair samples for a genetic study, and because she was alone, she would frequently blow a whistle and clap her hands as she worked to alert any bears of her presence.
Even so, she managed to get within 12 feet (4 meters) of a grizzly without either knowing the other was there because of the sound of water runoff from a nearby a creek, rain and wind, according to an investigation completed Thursday by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“We spooked each other,” Kornak said. “I got down on the ground and pulled out my bear spray. He bit down on my skull and I just reached over with my left arm and sprayed him and he was gone.
“The bear spray saved my life,” she added.
But her skull was cracked open, her back and arm had been clawed and she was 2 miles (3 kilometers) from her truck. She sent out an emergency notification using her Garmin inReach Global Satellite device, then she washed the Mace-like bear spray out of her eyes with water.
Kornak checked the trail to make sure the bear was really gone, then started walking.
“I said, ‘I’m at least going to try to get as far as I can,'” she said. “If I at least get to my truck, then I wouldn’t run into any other animals, like another bear or a moose.”
Kornak made it to her car then drove about 3 miles (5 kilometers) along a dirt road until she came across a pickup truck. She flagged down the driver, and he gave her a ride until they came across an ambulance winding up the mountain road in response to her emergency call.
Kornak spent a week in the hospital and has since been recovering at home in Great Falls. She said her recovery is going well, though it’s a long process and she misses being in the field.
Far from dissuading her about her career choice, the attack just reinforced her goal of becoming a wildlife manager specializing in bears.
“I still want to do this,” she said. “If anything, this accident just helped me better my career.”
The Cabinet Mountains have about 50 grizzlies that are protected as a threatened species. DNA tests show the bear that attacked Kornak is a 24-year-old male that was previously captured in 2005 as part of a research project.
Montana wildlife officials said the bear acted defensively, and not like a predator, so there will be no repercussions to the bear. Kornak also did everything she was expected to do, said FWP spokesman Dillon Tabish.
“It was a really unfortunate situation where neither the victim nor the bear was in the wrong,” Tabish said.
Kornak said she agreed with that conclusion.
“He was just doing what bears do. I don’t think there’s anything that needed to be done,” she said.