Mauled in the woods, a grizzly bear researcher in Montana walks two miles with a fractured skull for help
Less than two weeks ago, Amber Kornak posted about her new job on Facebook.
It was her dream: She would be a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seasonal field assistant working with the small but threatened grizzly bear population of Montana's Cabinet Mountains, a narrow stretch of snow-capped peaks that sprawl more 40 miles. Tucked within the range are glacial lakes, waterfalls and, on the southwest face, swamp creeks. There, sheltered by conifers and hardwoods, an estimated 50 grizzlies live. As a threatened species, federal law protects those grizzlies, which are particularly active during the spring.
Among Kornak's first projects would be to collect grizzly hair samples off trees or anything else the bears might rub their fur against. The hairs would be used to study the animals' DNA, according to the Associated Press.
But on May 17, the worst happened. As Kornak was collecting samples by herself near one of the mountain range's streams south of Libby, Montana, she was mauled by a bear, which left her with a fractured skull and severe lacerations to her head, neck and back, her friend, Jenna Hemer, wrote on a GoFundMe page.
"Anyone who knows Amber knows that she is fierce, and will fight like hell to recover as quickly as possible," Hemer wrote.
During the attack, Kornak was able to reach for her can of Mace-like bear spray. She sprayed it at the bear, but also at herself. Still, she managed to stay calm - and hiked 2 miles back toward her work vehicle with her fractured skull and injuries, Hemer wrote. From there, she drove to find help. Someone called 911, and Kornak was eventually flown to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Kornak is now recovering following what Hemer wrote was a four-hour surgery to "remove bone fragments and clean wounds to her brain."
"She's obviously passionate about all wildlife, but her dream and her primary focus was to work with grizzly bears," Hemer told the AP. "Last I spoke with her was yesterday and she's making great strides but it's going to be a long recovery."
Hemer and Kornak's family could not be immediately reached for comment.
It is unclear which species of bear attacked Kornak. The Cabinet Mountains are also home to black bears, a species that tends to be less aggressive. Trace evidence from the scene, however, was submitted for analysis and could reveal more information about what happened, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials in a statement regarding their investigation.
Officials believe Kornak may not have noticed the bear advancing toward her because of noise from a nearby creek. She followed the correct protocol for working in grizzly bear country by carrying bear spray and a satellite communication device, which allowed her to call 911 after the attack, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland, who spoke with the AP.
There are no rules about government workers traveling by themselves in bear country, Strickland told the AP. But state wildlife officials recommend traveling in groups of three to minimize likelihood of an attack.
Last year, Yellowstone-area grizzlies were removed from the endangered species list, and on Wednesday, May 23, a wildlife commission voted unanimously to approve the state's first grizzly bear hunt in more than four decades, which could lead to the killing of as many as 22 bears there.
Hemer posted an update on the GoFundMe page Wednesday, saying Kornak was still recovering and couldn't wait to eat pizza. More than $32,000 had been raised as of Wednesday night.
"Apparently, she has made national news coverage. Wow! We never expected that!" Hemer wrote. "With that being said, Amber is overwhelmed by all of the attention and would appreciate privacy in order to focus all of her attention on her recovery."
Story by Marwa Eltagouri. Eltagouri is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. She previously worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, where she covered crime, immigration and neighborhood change.