SWISSDALE - State police say a Woodward Township, Clinton County, man died from a bear attack.
The state Game Commission, however, disagrees, believing that Gary Lininger died of injuries caused when a tree fell on him.
Lininger, 62, died on Oct. 16, according to the Clinton County coroner. His body was found four days later outside his secluded mountain home along Tedrow Lane, just off Route 664, the Coudersport Pike, above the village of Swissdale and some eight miles north of Lock Haven.
Coroner Donald G. Walker said the death was not suspicious, but he ordered an autopsy to determine the cause because of the uncertain circumstances surrounding Lininger's passing.
Walker declined any comment on the case other than saying the death was accidental.
But his finding prompted an immediate investigation by state police at Lamar and the state Game Commission.
Trooper Matthew R. McDermott, who headed the probe, released his final report Tuesday afternoon, saying that, while Lininger's death was accidental, "a bear attacked the victim."
"The victim fell a tree, it struck him, rendering him dazed or unconscious. While in this state, a bear attacked the victim, which ultimately resulted in his death," McDermott wrote in his very brief report.
Game Commission officials adamantly disagree with that ruling.
"There's never been a documented bear killing of a human in Pennsylvania. With that said, we dispute that this was a bear attack that killed this individual," David A. Carlini, the agency's information and education supervisor for the Northcentral Region based in Jersey Shore, told The Express.
"We investigated along with state police and also conducted our own investigation. We do not believe a bear attack killed Mr. Lininger. We absolutely believe that the victim was in the act of cutting the tree down, the tree fell on him and caused injuries that he died from," Carlini said via telephone.
"I am very sure of our findings of the facts. We are the wildlife experts. We've dealt with bears killing livestock, pigs, horses ... We know the characteristics of bear kills. We are basing our conclusion on that knowledge and experience," he continued.
"We are not seeing evidence of a bear attack. There were multiple scratches on the body... a lot of them post mortem. Many of the other injuries were also post mortem. Some of the injuries were not post mortem ... believed caused by the tree falling on him."
Part of the reason the Game Commission believes Lininger died from injuries from a falling tree or limb is because the victim was feeding bears at his property, Carlini said.
"There were bear droppings in and around where the deceased was found. Those droppings contained contents of what was being fed in a feeder at the deceased's property ... so that's a reason why bears would be there," he said.
"We're not disputing all of the facts, we're disputing the summation and opinions by others in this case.
"We are not disputing there could have been bear or other animals involved. He was in the woods for three or four days. They could have taken advantage of that body laying in woods. We're not disagreeing that a bear found him afterwards," Carlini explained.
Despite the disagreement on Lininger's cause of death, Carlini said he doesn't want people to be afraid or panic that there's a dangerous bear on the loose in the county.
"People should always be cautious and respect bears. But to fear there is a man-eating bear attacking and stalking people, we do not believe that," he said.
Clinton County is considered bear country, typically coming in among the top three or five Pennsylvania counties in the number of bears harvested each hunting season. The just-ended bear season was no exception, with an estimated 217 bears harvested, just behind Lycoming County's 239, according to preliminary figures.
The Game Commission has studied black bears in Pennsylvania since its inception.
Wildlife conservation officers and biologists regularly provide information on bear habits, and offer precautions that people should take as the bear population continues to increase and more of the animals come into contact with humans.
"Our perceptions of bears are a product of their mostly shy, mysterious nature and powerful presence, not to mention the timeless tales that have been told about them. Unfortunately, there's as much misinformation about bears in circulation as there is fact. And that's too bad, because bears needn't be feared, nor should they be dismissed as harmless," the agency advises.
Bears "simply need to be respected," the agency says. "Pennsylvania's bear population has been increasing for decades, and at the same time, many people have moved into the areas where bears reside. As a result, bears and people are coming into contact more than ever. And most of these encounters occur when bears learn that where people live there's easy-to-obtain food. Learning about bears and being aware of their habits is important for people who live in bear country, which now includes most of the state," the agency advises on its web site.
"Bears may be on the move at any time, but they're usually most active at dusk and dawn. Bears are omnivorous, eating almost anything, from berries, corn, acorns, beechnuts and even grass, to table scraps, carrion, honey and insects. During late summer and fall, black bears fatten up for winter hibernation. At this time they may actively feed for up to 20 hours a day, ingesting up to 20,000 calories."
The agency advises that, if you live or have a summer home or camp in bear country, make accommodations to peacefully co-exist with these large animals.
"Make sure you don't encourage bears to become problem bears by putting your garbage where it's available to them or, even worse, by intentionally feeding them. Black bears will consume almost anything. They will eat human food, garbage, bird feed, pet foods and livestock feed. They also raid cornfields and beehives. Once bears find easily accessible food sources, whether on a farm or in a housing development, they lose their wariness of people and will keep coming back as long as food is available. The best way to get rid of these unwanted visitors is to remove the food source for a month or more, but even then, there are no guarantees. A persistent bear may damage property, increase the risk of human injury or become an unwanted visitor in other parts of the neighborhood. And, all too often, fed bears become dead bears."