Biologist reflects on grizzly bear attack and her own recovery

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Bear researcher Amber Kornak visits Kootenai Falls on July 22. She was in the area for a long weekend, taking a break from recovering from an encounter with a grizzly bear in the Cabinet Mountains on May 17. (Courtesy photo)

Keep going. Don’t stop. Get back into the field when you can.

These and many similar sentiments, and more than $45,000 in donations to offset medical costs, have “absolutely shocked” the bear researcher injured by a grizzly in a surprise encounter in the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby in May.

“I never expected anything,” said Amber Kornak, 28. “To me, it’s just an accident. I’m fine. I’m recovering. No big deal.”

Messages of support and concern have poured in via Facebook and phone calls to her colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They all want to know how I’m recovering and if I’m doing well,” Kornak said. “That’s great to know that still goes on in today’s world.”

Kornak sat for an interview in Libby earlier this summer at the end of a long weekend away from the Great Falls area, where she has been recuperating. As soon as her doctor said it was OK to drive, she came back for a visit.

“I absolutely love it here,” she said.

Kornak checked in with coworkers, hiked a couple easy trails and did things she didn’t have a chance to do in the one week she was in the area before her encounter with the grizzly.

Hesitant to talk with a reporter, Kornak decided to do so to thank the community — “Having that community support is super helpful in my recovery,” she said — and also in hopes that someone might read her story and think, “I can do that,” if faced with the same or similar circumstance in the wilderness.

“All the training and everything I did paid off,” Kornak said. “I was able to survive.”

The project

Kornak came to the Libby area to work on a project overseen by Wayne Kasworm, a grizzly bear biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was collecting bear hair samples from strands of barbed wire attached to trees or old sign poles for genetic analysis. The results, Kasworm told The Western News, can identify individual grizzlies and help estimate how many live in the Cabinet/Yaak Ecosystem.

The project was the latest in a series of temporary, seasonal positions Kornak has taken before and since graduating from Oregon State University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife science. It was the Michigan native’s second project in Montana, which she said has been her home base for about a decade. She’s also worked for various state agencies in Oregon, Missouri, Florida and Idaho. Even though bears are her passion, and bear manager her career goal, she has also studied white- and black-tailed deer and elk.

The encounter

May 17, a Thursday, was Kornak’s third day in the field working on Kasworm’s project. Assigned to the Cabinet Mountains, she was in the Poorman Creek Drainage that day.

About 11 a.m., Kornak had just collected hair samples from one tree, stepped out into an opening and started walking down a trail to get samples from three or four more strands of barbed wire. As she walked she blew a whistle, clapped her hands and stomped her feet to make her presence known to bears — safety measures that had been drilled into her consciousness to the point of becoming second nature.

Suddenly Kornak heard a “whuff!” and turned to her left.

“He was 11, 12 feet from me,” she said. “I fully remember him — his whole body, his head, everything — and I turned to the right and dropped down to the ground [and] got in a bush. At that point, he was already at my back and had smacked my back and clawed my arm. I had my bear spray on my belt, so I pulled it off, got the top off and that’s when he bit down.”

Kornak hoped she had fallen such that the bear would bite her pack. Instead it bit the back of her skull. Then she reached over with her left arm and sprayed the bear in the face. It ran off as suddenly as it had appeared, maybe 15 seconds before.

Kornak used her Garmin device to signal an emergency. She grabbed her water bottle, rinsed some bear spray from her eyes, took a drink and assessed the situation.

“I took a couple breaths and was like, OK, I’m going to get up and I can try to walk out,” she said.

Kornak looked down the trail to see if the bear was still there. Bears don’t make a lot of noise, she explained, so she hadn’t heard it run and didn’t know where it went.

She started walking the roughly two miles to her truck. She didn’t know the extent of her injuries, only that her left ear was ringing. At one point her hat fell off; she picked it up, hooked it onto her pack, and only then did she feel the back of her skull.

“It was swollen and I was like, I don’t need to see that,” Kornak said.

Instead, she focused on getting out and finding help. She thought about other things, such as how nice it would be to find antlers shed from a moose. And she kept making plenty of noise, lest she run into a moose — or another bear.

After about 45 minutes of “really fast” walking, some of it on snow, Kornak reached her truck. She stowed her pack, drank some water and grabbed a snack. She wrapped her sweatshirt around her head to staunch any bleeding — “I didn’t look in the mirror” — and started driving, thinking she might come across a bear hunter or someone else who could help.

About 3 miles later, Kornak saw the back of another vehicle. She sped up, honking her horn and waving out her window.

“He finally slowed down and pulled over,” she said. “I pulled over and got out and walked up to him and asked him if he could take me to the hospital.”

Before he could drive her that far, he came upon an ambulance that had been sent as a result of Kornak’s emergency signal. The ambulance took her to Highway 2, where she was placed on a helicopter and flown to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

“He was super kind,” Kornak recalled of the man who stopped for her. “I think he was just out for the day with his dog.”

The response

As news spread nationwide about Kornak’s encounter with a bear — it wasn’t immediately reported as a grizzly, pending DNA analysis of hair gleaned from the scene — some on Facebook wondered why a federal agency would let someone do work like that alone.

Kornak said the practice is not unusual, and that wildlife researchers frequently prepare for animal encounters.

“We did a bunch of training before we went out in the field [for this project],” she said, noting it wasn’t her first time — she drilled about bear safety first as a 16-year-old hunter and later at various other agencies.

“I knew what to do,” Kornak said.

Part of knowing what to do is using bear spray, which Kornak said saved her life. Kim Annis, Kornak’s friend and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager for Lincoln and Sanders counties, said a person using bear spray is “acting like a skunk.”

“Whatever is holding onto the skunk, it lets go, usually,” she said. “Obviously, it doesn’t always work, but the idea behind bear spray is that it hurts.”

The hot-pepper-based spray swells mucus membranes, irritates the eyes and impedes breathing, Annis said.

As for the bear’s actions that Thursday in May, Kornak said she and it “spooked each other.”

“He was just acting as bears do,” she said. “Just wondering what I am.”

Annis explained the incident as “a defensive tactic by a [grizzly] bear who was surprised at a very close range.”

“It’s the same behavior as when someone runs abruptly into a moose with a calf or a bull elk in rut,” she said, noting that grizzlies respond differently than black bears, which typically run up trees when surprised — a behavior Kornak said she witnessed while working a project in the Florida panhandle.

Even though Kornak was making lots of noise to make her presence known, she said the sound of water rushing nearby probably masked it.

Annis said the sound of wind can do that, too.

“Bears don’t pay attention the way that we think they should across the landscape, which is why we always tell people make as much noise as possible,” she said. “But even sometimes where you make lots of noise they simply don’t hear you.”

Recuperation

Kornak was told recovery would take at least three months, and that she would have follow-up doctors’ visits for at least a year.

The bear bite didn’t sever nerves, she said, but it caused “a lot of muscle damage” and the loss of 95 percent of hearing in her left ear. Her doctor did not know if the loss is permanent, and will scan her head in October, after her injury heals, to find the cause and see if it can be fixed.

Kornak doesn’t know when her doctor will let her return to work, or what he will allow her to do when he does. When that time comes, however, Kornak said she has an opportunity to return to her previous seasonal position with Idaho Fish and Game.

The job would be about an eight-hour drive from doctors, but her supervisors are willing to work around her health care schedule, she said.

Retrospection

Kornak said she’s always had a lot of respect for bears, but now has even more.

“If anything, this [encounter] just helped me become a better bear manager,” she said. “It’s just built up my knowledge in how to teach people to be bear safe.”

Kornak especially respects the bear that bit her. DNA analysis revealed in late June that it was a 24-year-old male grizzly that was native to the Cabinet-Yaak area and previously captured by researchers in 2005.

“It’s cool he’s an original bear from the Cabinets,” she said. “He’s super old. I find it super fascinating.”

Reflecting on the incident while recuperating, Kornak said she has learned more about herself: that she was able to protect herself and contribute to her rescue, and come out of it still wanting to do her job and not be negative about what happened.

“A lot of people call it a tragic incident and I don’t see it that way,” she said. “It was just an accident. I don’t have any regrets.”

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