Grizzly bear gone lost


Young Savage River problem bear in June/Betty Snyder photo

Fate may have intervened to save the life of a young grizzly bear on whose head Denali National Park officials imposed a death sentence earlier this month.

The subadult bear appeared doomed by the pleasure it seemed to find in chasing people and, sometimes, their motor vehicles. Eventually, the animal caught a hiker who somewhat inexplicably played dead, took a taste, and then ran off after the human’s friends started throwing rocks.

After that, National Park Service officials – who’d previously tried hazing the bear to make it wary of humans – decided enough is enough.

A bear that chases, catches and bites people is a bear that could just as easily kill someone, they concluded, and with no shortage of grizzly bears at zoos around the world there was no place to imprison this bad boy for life.

And so, the decision was made to kill it.

It’s hard to imagine the bear could have figured out what had happened, but shortly after the kill order was issued, it appears to have vamoosed. It has not been seen since July 1. A hunt for it was unsuccessful.

Now the park service plans to give up.

“Because the bear has not been seen since July 1, park managers have decided to begin reopening the (Savage River) area,” a Thursday press released announced.

On Monday, the agency will start rolling back a variety of closures that kept tourists out of the area where the bear had been hanging out for weeks in June and into July.

The Savage Cabin Trail, bus stop and parking area will reopen on Monday, and bicyclists will again be allowed on the Park Road that crosses the Savage on its way into the heart of the 6-million-acre wilderness preserve.

The Mountain Vista and Savage River Loop trails are scheduled to reopen on Thursday. Barring any new problesm, the Savage Alpine Trail and all other facilities in the area will reopen July 25, and tent camping will again be allowed.

Campers have been restricted to hard-sided vehicles since the bear problem began. And it could return. Nobody is promising this problem is over.

“If the young problem bear is seen in the Savage area at any point, ¬†facilities will once again be closed until the bear is caught,” park spokeswoman Miriam Valentine emailed.

What happened to the bear is anyone’s guess. There is about a one-in-20 chance it was killed by another bear or died because of an accident. That’s the natural death rate documented by biologist Jeff Keay in studies in the park from 1991 through 1998.

Though those might not seem like great survival odds to the urban humans of today, they’re good for Denali where life for young bears is hard and often deadly. Thirteen out of every 20 grizzly cubs die in their first year of life, according to Keay’study. Of those that make it through that difficult first year with their mother, more than half die in their second year.

Many people expressed displeasure about the possibility of the park service killing a problem bear, but a bear dying is not out of line with what goes in the park on a regular basis all year long. And this bear could still be in danger of termination.

There aren’t a lot of good options for dealing with problems bears in a world with zoos full of bears and with relocation a risky business. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was lucky things didn’t urn out even worse than they did last year after he fell victim to good intentions last year and intervened to save a family of Anchorage black bears causing problems

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which had been planning to shoot the animals, went to a lot of time, trouble and an expense of about $10,000 to instead capture those bears and transport them to the remote, northwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula.

“The animals promptly turned their noses into the prevailing winds and sniffed out the nearest human habitation. Within days of the transplant, they were causing trouble in the tiny, Kenai community of Hope. Four out of five of them were shot after invading tents and at least one van.

The fifth, a yearling, escaped and return to the wild. It is possible it is still out there.

Many are hopeful the Denali bear has concluded people are trouble, too, and stays away from them. But it is equally possible the animal has just wandered to a far corner of its natural range and could be back. Interior Alaska grizzlies inhabit home ranges that often cover more than 100 square miles.

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