A man found dead in Great Smoky Mountains Park in 2020 was most likely killed by a black bear who was seen scavenging his remains, according to an autopsy report obtained Aug. 18 by the Citizen Times from the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Patrick Madura, 43, of Elgin, Illinois, was found dead Sept. 11, 2020, by backpackers, near where Madura had been camping in the remote Hazel Creek backcountry area of the park in Swain County.
According to a National Park Service report, backpackers first found an unoccupied tent at Hazel Creek campsite 82, then discovered what appeared to be human remains across the creek with a bear scavenging in the area, and alerted park rangers.
After observing a 240-pound bear actively scavenging on the remains, law enforcement rangers shot and killed the bear out of caution, Lisa McInnis, chief of resource management, said last year.
But at the time, park officials and biologists would not speculate on whether the bear had killed Madura, saying they needed to wait for the medical examiner’s report.
The autopsy, performed at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, took nearly a year to complete.
According to the report, Madura’s body had already been badly decomposed when received for autopsy.
“The cause of death is lacerated puncture wounds and blunt trauma of the head, probable neck, torso and extremities. The manner of death is accident,” the report said in summary.
Park officials did not respond to a request for comment Aug. 18.
On Aug. 19, park supervisory biologist Bill Stiver said in a statement that bears are "dangerous wild animals," and as such, their behavior can be unpredictable.
"There are inherent risks associated with hiking and camping in bear country. Black bears are the largest predator in the park, and although rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injury and death,” Stiver said.
The autopsy said the remains were “a partially decomposed man with multiple puncture wounds involving the skin consistent with bear claw and/or bite marks.”
It also said that while decomposition can make it more difficult to determine whether injuries occurred before or after death, some of the injuries showed hemorrhage into the surrounding tissues, which indicated they occurred before he died.
Some of the ribs were fractured and showed hemorrhage into the surrounding muscle, and a similar injury to the left lung were consistent with “antemortem” injury.
The autopsy also revealed lacerations to Madura’s scalp and a finger and lacerated puncture wounds of the back and lower extremities.
Madura’s heart, lungs and brain “showed no evidence of significant natural disease.”
Madura’s family could not be reached for comment.
Numerous photographs and reports were reviewed for the autopsy, according to the report.
“There appeared to be an area of disturbance located near his campsite with evidence of drag marks to the creek. A necropsy was performed on the black bear that was found scavenging the remains, and contents of its gastrointestinal tract were consistent with human tissue. Given the investigative findings and autopsy findings it is most likely that the decedent died as a result of a bear attack,” the report concluded.
How common are black bear attacks on humans?
According to park biologists, there are nearly 2,000 black bears who reside in the rugged, mountainous, half-million acres of the Smokies, which sprawls across Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee and serves as a bear sanctuary.
Bear attacks in the park are rare. They mostly eat berries, nuts and acorns, but also will eat small animals and scavenge on carcasses, McInnis said.
But with the Smokies being the most-visited national park in the country – 12.1 million people visited in 2020 – human-bear interactions are almost inevitable. There have been at least six known attacks in the park, including a mauling of a 16-year-old in 2015 in the Hazel Creek area.
A 16-year-old girl was attacked and injured by a bear early on the morning of June 18 while she was sleeping in a hammock in the Cosby section of the Smokies.
The girl survived the attack but received multiple injuries, including head lacerations. Rangers shot and killed a bear identified by the family as having attacked her.
Besides Madura, there has only been one other death by bear attack in the park. Glenda Bradley, 50, was killed by a bear in 2000 in the Elkmont area.
The park has been tracking bear euthanizations and has recorded 57 since 1990, Jamie Saunders, a park spokesperson, said last year, for reasons from malnourishment, to a bear that has been suffering or injured, or due to a bear attack on humans.
“Euthanization is never a decision lightly taken here at park. Feeding on human remains is a behavior that once learned, bears learn to repeat,” McInnis said last year. “Once that association is made, it’s hard to break.”
Tips on bear safety:
1. If approached by a bear, visitors should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and themselves, creating space for the animal to pass. Do not run. If the bear continues to approach, rangers recommend standing your ground together as a group. Make yourselves look large and throw rocks or sticks at the bear.
2. If attacked by a black bear, fight back with any object available and remember that the bear may view you as prey.
3. Feeding, touching, disturbing and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, are illegal in the park.
4. When camping or picnicking, dispose of all food scraps and trash in a bear-proof trash can to prevent bears from getting a food reward for approaching people. Nothing should be left on the ground or in fire rings.
5. When camping in the backcountry, hang backpacks, all food and scented products on the food storage cables to prevent bears from getting a food reward for approaching people. Bears are very visual and will take and destroy backpacks even if they don’t contain food items. Pack out all food scraps and trash. Do not try to bury or burn it.
Source: National Park Service
Karen Chávez is Content Coach/Investigations Editor for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Email her at KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: 2020 death in Great Smokies Mountains Park likely black bear attack