World News

Fur Trapper Kills Grizzly Bear After His Wife and Baby Were Mauled in the Yukon

Posted November 29, 2018 6:56 p.m. EST

For the past three months, Gjermund Roesholt and his family lived far off the grid in the Yukon, the vast, desolate Canadian territory where wildlife outnumbers humans. They traded life in the city for a cabin on Einarson Lake, a remote speck of water amid snow-capped mountains, and spent their waking hours fur trapping.

On Monday afternoon, Roesholt had almost finished the return trek from his trapline to the family’s cabin when a grizzly bear appeared and charged him, the authorities said. He pulled out a gun and killed the bear, but soon discovered a gruesome sight: Outside the cabin were the bodies of his wife, Valerie Theoret, 37, and their daughter, Adele Roesholt, 10 months.

They had been mauled to death by a bear, most likely the one Roesholt shot, Canadian authorities said.

In the Yukon, it is common for people and bears to interact, both in the wild and in towns, where the animals sometimes venture and rummage through trash for food. But it is not normal for the interactions to turn violent, let alone fatal. In the past 20 years, only three people in the territory have been killed by bears, according to the Yukon Department of Environment.

The deaths of Theoret, a sixth-grade French-immersion teacher who was on maternity leave, and Adele have stunned fellow trappers and those in Whitehorse, a close-knit city of 25,000 people where the family lived full time. So many people in the city, the Yukon’s largest, have been shaken by the attack that therapists and psychologists were brought in for counseling at a communitywide event Thursday.

“Of course it’s a tragedy,” said Isabelle Salesse,executive director of the Association Franco-Yukonnaise, an organization in Whitehorse that supports French-speaking Yukon residents and causes, and who knew Theoret. “That her baby was with her and died as well, it’s even worse.”

Theoret, who was on leave from Whitehorse Elementary School, had taught hundreds of students over the years and was well liked by parents, Salesse said. The Yukon Department of Education called her a “valued educator.”

“This tragedy weighs heavy on our hearts as a community and in times such as these, we will come together to honor her memory and support each other,” the department said in a statement.

After killing the bear and discovering the bodies, police said, Roesholt activated a satellite-connected emergency device that alerted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the tiny village of Mayo, Yukon, which is 130 miles west of Einarson Lake. The site of the family’s cabin, tucked among spruce and birch trees in the Yukon River Basin near the territory’s border with the Northwest Territories, does not have cellphone reception and is accessible only by helicopter.

While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded to the scene, the lead investigative agency is the territory’s Department of Environment. The department looks into deaths caused by animals, suggesting that the police do not suspect foul play was involved.

Roesholt was approved to lease the trapline and the cabin on the lake, which is stocked with grayling fish, in October 2015, according to government records. In his application, he said his family would arrive by air and noted that the most dominant animals in the area were moose and grizzly bears.

It was not clear what kind of fur trapping the family was involved in. The trapping season in the Yukon for most animals, including beavers, foxes and wolverines, starts in November every year. There are 280 traplines in Yukon, which are regulated by the government, and about 200 active fur trappers this season, according to the Yukon Trappers Association.

Conservation officers at the Department of Environment, as well as the Yukon coroner’s office, were expected to complete a necropsy of the grizzly bear soon, said Roxanne Stasyszyn, a department spokeswoman. The investigation will try to determine whether the grizzly killed by Roesholt was the same that attacked his family, and whether it was prompted because it felt threatened or because it saw the mother and child as prey.

“It’s fair to say that the further you go from the community, the more in bear habitat you’ll tread,” said Stasyszyn, who added that encounters with bears occur far more frequently than bear attacks.

“They are not very common,” she said.

The last killing of a human by a bear in the Yukon was in October 2014, when a bear broke into a Canadian couple’s cabin and mauled a woman. In April 2006, an employee at a mining company accidentally walked into a bear den, and a mother bear killed him. In July 1996, a young bear found a campsite along a popular hiking trail and fatally attacked a woman who tried to play dead, believing it would cause the bear to leave her alone.

Across Canada, there are 30,000 grizzly bears, according to the latest estimates, and the largest population is believed to be in the Yukon. They are generally the most feared bear, along with polar bears, in Canada and can react aggressively when they see humans.

Andy McMullen, a bear safety consultant in Canada, said the grizzly attack in the Yukon was especially surprising because it occurred during a time of the year when bears typically retreat to their dens to hibernate for the winter. Bears in some parts of the country, depending on the climate, begin hibernation around the start of November, he said.

“Surprise encounters are typically the cause of grizzly bear attacks,” said McMullen, who lives in the Northwest Territories.

McMullen, who is not involved in the investigation, said it seemed likely that the grizzly bear started to charge Roesholt because it was trying to keep him away from the two bodies. “It’s defending its kill,” he said. If someone encounters a bear, McMullen said, it is best to stand still and then slowly retreat from the bear. The animals are more impatient than humans and are more likely to run off, he said.

The bear’s body language also dictates the best response, said Stasyszyn of the Department of Environment. If the bear is merely protecting its space, back away in hopes that the bear understands you are not a threat. But if the bear is aggressive and shows signs that it will attack, act large, be loud and fight back, she said.

Do not play dead in that situation, she added, because you will be an easy target. “It’s the wrong thing to do,” she said.