A Denali National Park and Preserve grizzly bear that had taken to chasing people in the Savage River area in hopes of obtaining food might have had a reason.
Park rangers who this week captured and later killed the bear say it was badly malnourished and injured.
“The bear was in terrible physical condition and had a deformity,” Dave Schirokauer, Denali resource nd science team leader, was quoted saying in a park statement.
The deformity was an extra, upper-left canine tooth. The injuries were a broken and badly infected front left leg and a broken nose. Bears can sustain such injuries in falls or when attacked by other bears, a not uncommon occurrence in Denali Park.
Despite being sometimes idolized as a natural paradise, the Alaska wild is a jungle where the rules are simple: The strong kill the weak and the young seldom survive. The three-year-old, 13o-pound, male grizzly was lucky to have lived as long as it did.
A long-running study in the park has shown that about 65 percent of the bear cubs born in Denali are dead within their first year of life. Of those that survive, another 40 percent die as yearlings. Survival rates improve as the bears age into maturity, but sub-adults remain vulnerable.
Young bears safer where hunted
The Denali study also underlined one of the paradoxes in the world of bears in Alaska. Where the animals are hunted, invariably with a focus on removing large, “trophy”animals – cub survival increases dramatically.
“For comparison, cub survival in the Susitna area of Alaska, where hunting for grizzly bears is allowed, was 67 percent,” the Denali study noted. “Low cub survival in non-hunted areas, such as national parks and wildlife preserves, where populations are at near capacity, is believed indicative of density-dependence population regulation.
“Although not confirmed, high cub and yearling mortality in Denali is believed to be a result of either starvation or predation as was the case for Yellowstone National Park.”
Recognizing that bear deaths are among the most natural of events in Denali, park officials had planned to kill the Savage bear after it attacked and injured a hiker at the start of July even though the attack was relatively minor.
A group of hikers approached by the bear elected to play dead instead of uniting to drive the bear away. Curious, the animal approached a woman on the ground, pawed and then bit her. Her friends jumped up and started throwing rocks. The bear retreated as it had on other occasions.
The woman was injured but did not require hospitalization.
Still, the incident rattled park managers, who worried the next hiker to meet the bear might not be so lucky. They organized a bear hunt only to find the animal had disappeared into some far corner of the 6-million-acre Denali wilderness.
It looked like that might be the end of the story until last week when a bear matching the description of the three-year-old again showed up in the Savage area.
On Wednesday, the park’s Kathleen Kelly reported, “park staff was able to positively identify this bear.”
By then, the park service, which had heard from a fair number of people who wanted the bear “saved,” had changed its plan for how to deal with a troublesome animal in one of the most popular national parks in the 49th state.
“Last night, wildlife staff captured the bear using a helicopter and placed it in a culvert trap overnight,” Kelly emailed. “Wildlife staff initially planned to (radio) collar the bear and release it in conjunction with aversive conditioning in the Savage River parking lot.”
Teaching bears lessons
What the park calls “aversive conditioning” essentially amounts to punishing a grizzly enough to give it the idea people are to be avoided. Aversive conditioning techniques can include bouncing rubber bullets off a bear, rocking it with bean-bag rounds, or pepper spraying it.
“The park’s wildlife biologists concluded hitting the bear with multiple aversive rounds as it was released would potentially have compromised the bear further and possibly resulted in additional injuries given its poor condition and lack of fat,” Kelly said.
Poorly place rubber bullets or bean bags have been known to kill. Having already subjected the young bear, which was about half the weight it should have been, to capture and caging, biologists decided it was better to simply ends its life than make it suffer more.
“We are all emotionally impacted and physically emotionally drained by this series of events,” Schirokauer said. “Denali wildlife staff and rangers…pride themselves on managing the park in a manner that is least impactful to wildlife.
“We take the loss of the bear personally. We are also not accustomed to it; it’s been 36 years since the park has killed a food-conditioned bear.”
Park officials have tied the bears continuing bad behavior to it obtaining food from a human who dropped a backpack after the bear intimidated him, but this situation is clearly more complicated than that.
There are no records of Alaska grizzly bears hunting people, but there are indications from the condition of some bears killed in defense of life and property that malnourished bears lose some of their fear of humans.
A Chugach State Park ranger earlier this year killed an old, undersized, female grizzly that ripped up a couple of tents in a work camp just south of Anchorage, and then brazenly approached him after he was called to investigate.
The national park service said that with the Savage bear now dead all park facilities that had been closed for public safety have been reopened, but cautioned that the death of one problem bear does not mean the area is bear free.
At least seven other bears are now known to be in the Savage River-Mount Healy-Primrose Ridge area, Kelly reported. Park visitors are being asked to exercise caution and be bear aware. A good primer on deal with bears can be found here: Living with Bears.