Darlene Baglio had seen at least one black bear in her north-central Minnesota yard in the past few days, so she was being extra cautious about letting her dog out.
On Monday evening, the 72-year-old McGregor woman carefully surveyed the scene outside her door to make sure no bears were in sight. She saw none, so she let the dog out.
But hidden beneath her deck were three yearling bears. Their 190-pound mother was nearby, out of Baglio's view. The young bears took off, with the dog in hot pursuit.
When Baglio reached the bottom of her deck stairs, she saw the sow nearby. At first it ran toward the dog, but when Baglio called out for the dog, the bear came at her, striking her left arm and side with its claws and knocking her to the ground, according to a state Department of Natural Resources account of the rare attack. The bear retreated, then attacked a second time, biting her on the right arm and leg. It then ran off toward the yearlings.
Conservation officer Lt. Brent Speldrich, who arrived after Baglio's 7 p.m. 911 call, found the bears about 200 yards away. When the sow ran at him, he shot and killed it. Under DNR policy and state law, conservation officers or other law officers may kill a bear if it is considered a threat to public safety.
The attack on Baglio was the first black-bear attack in Minnesota in seven years and just the fifth case in the past 25 years. She was hospitalized with puncture wounds to her arms, side and right leg. She was released from the hospital Tuesday.
Baglio couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. "She's been very traumatized by this incident," said Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director.
Wildlife officials said the bears probably were in the Aitkin County yard to eat birdseed from a feeder and that the attack probably occurred because the sow felt threatened by Baglio and her dog.
Baglio's 6-year-old golden retriever has been sighted in the area, but was still missing Wednesday.
'Not typical' bear behavior
With 12,000 to 15,000 black bears in Minnesota, bears and people frequently encounter each other, but rarely have serious conflicts, said DNR research scientist Dave Garshelis.
"It takes a lot to provoke a female bear to attack somebody," Garshelis said. "This is not typical behavior of a bear. They are more scared of us than we are of them. ... There are occasionally bold bears that attack people [in North America]. To me, this doesn't sound like a bold bear, but rather a bear scared and put in an unusual situation through no one's fault."
The 40- to 50-pound yearlings normally would have separated from their mother sometime in early June anyway, so they should be fine without her, Garshelis said.
He noted that homeowners in bear country — which includes roughly the northern half of the state — can take precautions to avoid bear conflicts.
"These are wild animals, and they are unpredictable when put in situations like this that cause stress and confusion," Garshelis said. "I would assume this incident would convince people in the area to take their bird feeders down, at least for a while."
Bears eat ants and vegetation this time of year; berries won't supplement their diets until July. "Sunflower seeds are exceptionally nutritious food for bears, so it's not surprising they'd be attracted to that, especially now," Garshelis said.
The presence of the yearlings probably led to this attack, he said.
"There are some rare cases across North America where black bears attack people because they see them as prey," he said. "This was not one of those cases."
The one known such case in Minnesota occurred in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1987, when a black bear mauled a Minnetonka man in an unprovoked attack, and only the efforts of his son to fight off the bear saved his life. He was flown out of the wilderness and was hospitalized with 19 puncture wounds, but survived.
Three other Minnesota bear attacks that caused serious injuries:
• In 2002, a bear attacked a grouse researcher near Milaca. He suffered broken facial bones, puncture wounds to his head and left leg, and a broken fibula.
• In 2003, near Grand Marais, a woman was mauled by a female bear she found in her garage.
• In 2005, a woman walking her dog in the woods southwest of Duluth was mauled by a black bear. She fought the bear, hitting it in the nose, but suffered serious injuries.
None of the Minnesota attacks was fatal, officials said.