Commentary

On killing bears

bear-claws

Nature’s dangerous weapon/Corinne Danzl photo

Commentary

After surviving nights of terror, residents of a subdivision outside of the small Alaska community of Seward got to become villains.

Their crime?

They participated in or supported the killing of a grizzly bear sow and its two cubs, three of about 2,000 grizzly bears killed in the 49th state every year.

Most of these killings go unnoticed except for the occasional news story about a trophy hunter who bags a record bear, or a magazine tale about a wilderness bear hunt.  This bear was no trophy.

It was one of many average grizzlies, or brown bears as Alaskans often call them, killed each year in what the state calls “defense of life and property.” State law makes it legal to shoot a bear if it threatens your life or tries to break into your house or eat your livestock.

DLP (Dee-El-Pea) shootings, as these killings are commonly known in Alaska, usually don’t make the news unless they happen in a popular recreation area or come after someone is injured by a bear.

The author has been involved in two DLP shootings. In one, he killed a camp-invading grizzly bear that had been previously wounded by a state employee who judged it a threat to public safety; in the other, he shot a sow grizzly off his leg after she ran over him, slashed his face with a claw, and sunk her teeth in flesh just above his ankle.

Both of those DLPs made the news at the time, but most don’t. When a Chugach State Park ranger this summer DLPed a bear he thought was threatening trail workers camped near the roadside community of Indian, nothing was reported, though the half-million-acre Chugach is the most popular park in the state.

Some things, it would seem, are better left unsaid. Just ask the residents of the Questa Woods Subdivision about 7 miles north of Seward along a busy highway that connects the Resurrection Bay community to the state’s largest city.

Cowards

“Corrine and Keith Danzl of Quests (sic) Woods, Seward and David and Lynn Hettick of Woodrow sub near Bear Lake, the killers of the female brown bear and its three cubs, can only be called cowards,”read one of more than 100 comments posted at adn.fcom after the Alaska  Dispatch News ran a story about the Seward bears being killed.

It was among the tamer of some of what was said.

The news story itself was fair and balanced in the way the news stories are never quite fair and balanced. It reported what had happened. It said the bears had been in the neighborhood regularly, and that they had chased a couple of people. It said the state had judged the killings legal. It reported one of the bears was shot after it got in a chicken coop, and that all of them had taken to the habit of raiding chicken coops.

The chicken coops attracted many comments. Few mentioned the danger posed by bears  that have become accustomed to stealing food from humans. These bears tend to start of timidly with a grab and run, but they grow bolder with every raid.

Questa residents learned about that once the  bears started targeting fowl.

“I experienced the most stressful night I’ve ever lived through (one night, when I was working in Corrections, is right up there but still this bear incident tops even that),” Corinne Danzl emailed. “One of my neighbor’s hadn’t gotten more than 2 1/2 hours of sleep a night for a week.”

Until you’ve lived through something like this, you have no clue. Bears on a rampage are not quiet animals. It’s like listening to gang warfare being raged in your neighborhood. Anyone unafraid to go outside in the moment is a fool.

Danzl and her neighbors tried to get the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to do something about the bears, which appeared to be getting bolder and thus more dangerous by the day. But the nearest state wildlife biologist is a two-hour drive away 100 miles to the west in Soldotna on the opposite side of the Kenai Peninsula.

So eventually the Danzl’s acted on their own.

“I realize that the ADFG doesn’t want to have to deal with the flack they’d get if they shot a bear but leaving it in the hands of people that aren’t experienced with firearms isn’t cool in my opinion,” Corinne wrote. “Keith and I are both comfortable with our firearms. We were professionally trained, but most of our neighbors are not.  Some won’t even shoot a gun.  Then you have those that might be willing to try to shoot the bears but they were doing most of their marauding at night in pitch blackness.  That’s the reason we weren’t able to kill the sow Wednesday morning.  We could hear her but we couldn’t see her. The area of our yard that she broke out of has a house across the road so there was absolutely NO way either one of us would shoot in (that) direction.”

In the end, it wouldn’t matter. The death of a cub didn’t alert the sows’ behavior at all, but then it wouldn’t be expected to do so. Most cubs die in the wild. Sows are used to it happening.  This sow kept on getting into trouble until Hettick shot and killed her.

Big mistake

The whole thing  normally would have been over there – the bears dead, the neighborhood relieved but a little sad about the cubs, and everything destined to fade away into history.

But Corinne got the idea in her head that others shouldn’t have to go through what the people in Questa Woods went through and decided it would be a good idea to reveal what had happened.

“The reason I brought it to the attention of the ADN was because I was frustrated and scared with the situation and the lack of support from the ADF&G,” she said. “From the sounds of all of the people that are riled up about the story, it wasn’t one of my more brilliant ideas.”

Modern-day Americans, including a lot of people living in Alaska, hold a strangely distorted view of natural ecosystems as places where animals live in peace and harmony when actually the reality is the opposite. The natural world is constant death and danger, and the young, in particular, die with a depressing regularity.

One of the big differences between humans and the rest of the predators of the planet is that we see the young as weak and vulnerable, and we want to protect them, or at least most of us do. Other predators see the young as weak and vulnerable, and because of that easy to kill.

Sixty-five percent of the grizzly cubs born in Denali National Park and Preserve every year don’t make it through their first year. Of those that survive, another 40 percent die within their second year. Scientists studying the bears concluded the high death rate was likely due to starvation and predation. 

Nature is brutal. It’s that simple.

Killing bears

Much has been made in recent years of the danger human food attractions – primarily garbage, dog food and livestock or fowl – pose to bears. That some bears can stumble on these foods sources and become addicted is well documented.

But it is a mistake to conclude that all bear suffer from this addiction.

Some bears seem to understand well that people are best avoided, and they avoid them like the plague. State wildlife biologist Sean Farley radioed collared Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson bears that he eventually found to be running all over Anchorage.

Many of them were seldom seen. Why? Because they didn’t want to be seen. They avoided people.

Corinne, one of the villains in the Seward story, has known bears like that. Most Alaskans who live around bears have known bears like this.

“Bears like that I don’t mind at all,” she said. “One of my neighbors, who had her own negative encounters with this sow and cubs, and who helped skin her out, told me she took walks everyday this summer where she encountered a (different) brown bear sow and her three cubs almost daily and she never had a problem with her.”

I had a neighbor who along with her dogs this spring passed within about 100 feet of a good-size boar grizzly on a kill. He stuck his head out of the brush to look at her, and that was it. I later rode past on a mountain bike, and he didn’t react at all.

Later, when I went to investigate what he had killed, I found the remains of an adult moose. There wasn’t much left. I saw the same boar once more pursing a cow with a calf. It was a fleeting glimpse. He was keeping to cover while stalking the duo through the woods. Over the course of the month that followed,  I three times found bear scat containing the hooves of moose calves.

I assume he got them all, but I never saw that bear again. He was a ghost.

It’s probably not fair to cast bears as “good bears” and “bad bears,” but in human terms, that was a good bear. Bears that are actively trying to avoid people are unlikely to harm people.

The others? Well, it’s sad when they die, but it might very well be a good thing. Removing aggressive bears from the gene pool is certainly good for us, and in the long run it is likely good for the bears.

The Questa Woods bears were headed for trouble. Had they hurt someone, and that was a growing possibility, they would only have underlined the idea that all bears are dangerous, and when people conclude that is the case, any bear that shows its face is in danger of becoming a target.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story in some places mistakenly referenced the Questa Woods Subdivision as Questa View.

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8 replies »

  1. I would hate to think the only place bears feel safe is in the Federal Parks and Wildlife Refuges… See a bear in Kenai, kill it. I’ve seen our local cops kill any bear spotted in a residential area including a sow and cubs…. Even if the area adjoins the Kenai River… I personally prefer to live in an area where bears and wolves call home. Frankly, I trust bears and wolves more than I trust allot of people… but I no longer have young children. Just my opinion…

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  2. Thanks for the article. This particular sow and bear cubs had become aggressive, both night and day. Rubber bullets, horns and shot gun fire, did nothing to dissuade them from returning to places that had any wildlife to eat. Children get off the buses in that neighborhood, and many walk home, sometimes to an empty house. The bears were a danger to human life – plain and simple. The people who took out the bears should be thanked, for a storm of phone calls to the forest rangers, were never returned. A state trooper did say they would probably have to kill the bears, because they had established a way to survive that involved raiding homes, and once they had learned that behavior they would not stop. The cubs were being taught to survive in that manner. So, THANK YOU, Danzl family, for doing what needed to be done, to protect the humans in your neighborhood.

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      • Ms Bivins: You seem to be fearful. There are ways to live peacefully with bears. One way NOT to live peacefully is improper storing of trash and having poultry. Also, were the bears really “raiding homes”?

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      • Alaskans have been raising chickens and other livestock, and living around bears, successfully for well over 100 years. However, if living peacefully with bears means not having poultry then no one in the lower 48 should have poultry either so that they can live peacefully with bears, opossums, coyotes, mountain lions, bob cats, owls, wolves, skunks, packs of loose dogs, eagles, hawks, hogs (both domestic and wild) and weasels.

        In Alaska there are over 500 MILLION acres of land that are owned by the federal and state governments. Bears have access to all of those acres, plus hundreds of thousands more. Contrast that to the city of Seward. Seward is a community of around 2,500 people. Seward covers approximately 13,440 acres. Seward is also surrounded on all sides by state and federal park land. There is absolutely no reason for bears to choose to live among people here.

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  3. we all can thank adf&g for the high population of brown bears on the kenai peninsula they created it with no hunting for several generations of bears.
    this is only the beginning as hunter harvest only slows the population growth and with prey populations(moose and fish) declining, bears do have to eat something.

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    • i’m not sure the population is “high,” Robert, but it is now certainly healthy. and at least on the Cook Inlet side of the Peninsula, there is plenty of fish. it would be interesting to have long-term trend data on that population. i can remember when a lot of people were concerned bears might disappear on the Kenai. one can hypothesize the big dip had as much to do with the salmon crash of the 1970s as with anything else. it probably left the population depressed for some time. as we’ve seen in Yellowstone where bear recovery was closely monitored, it can take a depressed population decades to recover. the good news is that the Kenai population appears to have recovered. the bad news is that means there will sometimes be problem bears to deal with. most bears have the sense to avoid people, which is good. those that don’t, simply need to be removed. it shouldn’t be a big deal. but, of course, it is because a lot of folks now have a Disneyesque view of how the world works.

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