Communities across Yukon are reeling with grief following the death of a local woman and her infant daughter in an apparent bear attack.
Valérie Théorêt, 37, her 10 month-old daughter, Adele Roesholt, and her partner, Gjermund Roesholt, had been living in the remote backcounty near Einarson Lake, northeast of the small Yukon community of Mayo, close to the border of the Northwest Territories, for around three months. According to a statement released by Yukon Chief Coroner Heather Jones Nov. 27, Roesholt, a trapper, returned home to their cabin from checking his lines around 3PM on November 26, where he was confronted and charged by a grizzly bear.
Roesholt shot the bear dead in self-defence.
But horrifically, he soon found the bodies of his wife and child nearby the cabin. It is believed they were out for a walk when they were attacked by the bear, sometime earlier that day.
Mayo RCMP were alerted of the incident by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre at 3:45 PM. the same day, following the activation of an emergency spot device.
Although geographically large, Yukon has a population of around 40,000—approximately the same as a small town—which means that every death is felt within the community, especially when it is of such a violent nature. The tragedy has had an especial impact on the local francophone community, of which Théorêt was an active member. She was part of the Francophone branch of the Yukon maternal wellness program, Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies, and worked as a French immersion teacher at Whitehorse Elementary School. She was on maternity leave at the time of her death.
“Valérie was a ray of sunshine in the community… she was a smiling person, and her little baby Adele was the same, she was already turning into a little smiling Valérie,” said Isabelle Salesse, the executive director for Association Franco-Yukonnaise (AFY).
“She had a lot of connection in the Franco community,” she says. “She touched a lot of people.”
AFY is offering professional counselling services on Nov. 29 for those who feel they need to talk to someone about their grief. Everyone is welcome, Salesse said.
“It is a big shock to the community, Anglo and Franco, it’s a big shock for Canada, too…What’s really interesting about the Franco community here in Yukon is that we can and do support each other,” she said. “We at AFY are thinking about Valérie, about her baby, her partner and her family, and we are sending them our thoughts.”
Yukon has a thriving Francophone population, with 5 percent of people in the territory identifying French as their mother tongue according to the Canadian Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages website.
Once the backbone of many Northern communities, trapping remains an important economic, cultural and sustenance occupation in Yukon.
It is not unusual for people or families to live in remote areas or to come in contact with wildlife in some Yukon communities. Even in Whitehorse, the territory’s most populated city, wildlife interactions are frequent; downtown streets are home to “neighbourhood foxes” and bear sightings on popular in-town hiking trails are not unusual in the summer months, although residents still treat them with caution.
Salesse says both Théorêt and Roesholt were considered to be extremely responsible and respectful outdoors people.
Yukon has seen an usually warm fall and winter this year. The recorded average daily high temperature Mayo in November is -14.1 degrees C. The high on Nov. 26—the date of the attack—was 4 degrees C.
Bears in Yukon are usually hibernating at this time of year – traditionally far colder than it has been this season – although it is “not unusual” to see activity in November and even into January, says Roxanne Stasyszyn, director of communications for the Yukon Department of Environment.
“Generally bears that have not gone into hibernation by this time are either still foraging because they they are still finding food sources that make it worthwhile, (are) lacking required fat stores ro successfully hibernate and (have) become desperate for food… (or otherwise) sick, injured or unable to establish a home range, or (have) lost their den to a weather event (such as) flooding or it has been disturbed by industrial activity,” she says.
Bear attacks fall into one of two categories, she says—predatory and defensive. A defensive attack usually happens when a bear feels threatened, or is defending a food source, den or cubs. Predatory attacks are usually acts of desperation, caused by inadequate fat stores, starvation, injury or illness.
The reason why this particular bear—as well as its age, sex and general health—attacked is unknown at this time, she notes. The Department of Environment intends to do an necropsy of the animal.
Despite the close proximity of wildlife in the territories, death by bear attack is extremely rare, both generally and in Yukon. In the last 50 years there have only been three people killed in Yukon by bears, Stasyszyn says. These incidents include:
- Christine Courtney – Kluane National Park, July 7, 1996 – Predatory attack
- Jean-Francois Page – Ross River area, April 28, 2006 – Defensive attack
- Claudia Huber – Teslin area, October 28, 2014 – Predatory attack
A 2015 coroner’s investigation into the Huber incident ruled that the cause of death was actually a bullet, fired by her husband during the attack in an effort to save her from the animal, which deflected off a nearby tree and struck Huber in the chest.
Despite the common belief that one should always play dead when approached by a bear, Stasyszyn says, this actually is only effective in a defensive attack. In the case of a predatory attack, you must fight back, being as loud, aggressive and intimidating as possible.
The investigation by the Mayo RCMP and the Yukon coroner is on going.
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