Human remains found ravaged by one or more brown bears on a southeast Alaska island are likely from a Sitka man overdue on a boating trip, Sitka police said Monday.
Police confirmed the grisly death Sunday and said remains found on Chichagof Island were likely that of Tomas Puerta, 54, who left Sitka in a skiff Thursday on his way to a forestry job site near Peril Strait.
The death was first reported by KCAW-FM.
Sitka is a community of about 9,000 on Baranof Island. Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands together are known as the "ABC Islands." They're sparsely populated with humans but heavily populated with bears that Alaska researchers have found are genetically more closely related to polar bears than to other brown bears.
"They have lots of bears, especially up on Chichagof," said Sitka police Lt. Barry Allen. "We have enough here on Baranof Island, but Chichagof has a scad of them."
Puerta was a tree-thinner, Allen said. He was employed in an area that had been logged to cut young trees so others would have less competition and would grow faster.
Puerta had made a grocery run, Allen said, and was returning to the job site with a load of food. The 40- to 50-mile trip on flat, protected water should have taken about two hours Thursday afternoon, Allen said, but Puerta never made it.
"It looks like he had engine problems and he wound up on the beach," Allen said.
He was reported missing Sunday afternoon about the time officers were responding to a report of an unattended skiff at Poison Bay on Chichagof Island.
Passers-by in another boat saw an unsecured skiff and went to shore to investigate. They were met on the beach by a brown bear sow with two cubs. Bears protecting a food cache can be hostile. The sow and cub acted aggressively, Allen said, and the Good Samaritans called emergency officials.
The police department sent its emergency response vessel to investigate. Sitka Mountain Rescue and an Alaska State Troopers also took a boat to the scene.
Puerta was not carrying a tent but officers found a backpack and evidence of a campsite.
"They found where he built a fire on the beach, and some groceries," Allen said.
They also found evidence of a struggle. They followed a trail of disturbed vegetation and articles of clothing to the human remains, which had been partially eaten. The remains had been cached within 50 yards of the beach.
Items found at the scene and information from Puerta's family and friends strongly indicate he was the person attacked. The sow and cubs are the suspects, Allen said.
"Whether or not that's the actual bears, I don't know," he said. "That particular area has lots of bear activity in it."
Allen said he had no indication when the victim was killed.
Police and a Fish and Wildlife trooper returned to the scene Monday to try to determine if a bear connected to death could be found. A bear determined to be responsible for killing a human would be killed.
The remains were taken to Anchorage for an autopsy by the state medical examiner.