While the kindly Canadians of Canmore, Alberta were in July pondering what to do with Bear 148 – the grizzly who likes people too much – the practical citizens of Anchorage, Alaska were resolving their bear problems the old-fashioned way: with bullets.
Since the start of the year, reported Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 33 bears have been killed in the sprawling, nearly 2,000-square-mile municipality, much of which remains wild land.
The dead: Thirty black bears. Three grizzlies.
One of the grizzlies was a massive sow – a bear bigger and potentially more dangerous than Bear 148 given the two cubs of the year the Anchorage grizzly had in tow. State biologists executed her in the name of public safety. The cubs went to the Anchorage zoo and are destined for a permanent home in the Oakland Zoo.
The Anchorage municipality includes the half-million acre Chugach State Park, most of which is wilderness; the 84,000-acre Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, most of which is undeveloped land reserved for military maneuvers; and tens of thousands of acres of the Chugach National Forest.
All told, about 85 percent of the land in the municipality is included in these reserves comprising an area larger than Yosemite National Park. The wild lands create a huge refuge for wildlife that spill over into the inhabited Anchorage Bowl at the head of Cook Inlet and range the hillsides above.
State wildlife biologists have estimated the area is home to at least 350 black bears and a hair-snagging effort to capture DNA from grizzlies found 36 different brown bears, as Alaskans often call the species, roaming in and around the edge of the city.
The abundance of bears has made residents of Alaska’s largest city – even those residents who love bears – more tolerant of killing bears that cause problems or threats to public safety. There was no public protest when the grizzly sow, a magnificent animal with the two cubs, was killed even though she had threatened no one.
There was simply an acceptance that a grizzly sow with cubs, which grizzly sows are notoriously quick to protect, brazenly roaming suburban neighborhoods where children play in the yards was an accident waiting to happen.
The view was starkly different in Canmore, a small town of about 12,000 people only 50 miles west of the sprawling metropolis of Calgary. Calgary is today the third largest community in Canada. The metropolitan area population, according to Statistics Canada, is closing in on 1.5 million people.
The bears are pretty well gone from Calgary, replaced by the deer and coyotes that flourish in modern North American cities. And disappearance has made hearts grow fonder toward bears.
After the news got out that Bear 148 had taken to confronting people and might be accordingly killed, more than 25,000 people signed an online petition to “Save Bear #148.”
“Bear 148 an iconic 6 year old female Banff National Park grizzly bear who’s mother is Bear 64, a female grizzly who coexisted in Banff townsite and Banff National Park for 25 years,” the petition said. ” To the best of our knowledge due to genetic testing by Parks her father is the iconic Bear 122 ‘The Boss’ Banff’s dominant grizzly. This year Bear 126 (another dominant male) came down from Lake Louise to visit her as she is now of breeding age; there is a possibility she is pregnant.
“Bear 148 has received a lot of press lately as she recently crossed Banff’s borders (bears don’t understand borders) into Canmore which is part of her range, and acted in a defensive manor during an incident involving dogs near a wildlife corridor and captured. After some debate she was eventually released back into Banff National Park with a stay of execution by Alberta Fish and Wildlife. Since we can not build a wall between Canmore and Banff, we cannot ensure her safety.”
The petition seriously understated what actually happened in Canmore.
In July, according to Lee Foote and Scott Nielsen, University of Alberta professors who study bears, Bear 148 “was involved in a spree of eight human conflicts in a four-day period, including approaching humans to less than three meters (10 feet), chasing people on the trail, and pursuing and taking a swipe at a dog. Something has changed in her maturation, assertiveness, or learned responses as she reaches breeding age; cubs are likely in 2018. A defensive grizzly mother with no fear of humans in a crowded recreational area is a ticking time bomb.”
It was the “ticking time bomb” aspect of sow grizzlies that led to the quiet removal of the sow in Anchorage, but the largest city in Alaska with its abundance of grizzly and black bears, isn’t Canmore.
Canmore is a civilized area, and in civilized areas killing dangerous wildlife doesn’t always generate a great sigh of relief from the people at risk, as Foote and Neilsen observed in a op-ed written for the Calgary Herald; it also generates “loud opposition from those whose ideology or location distances them from the issue.
‘The passion of special interest groups on each side of the issue and the whipsaw politics of inter-governmental advice is demoralizing to the biologists tasked with making hard decisions. Such is the friction-filled human-wildlife interface around the world, from Australia saltwater crocodiles to Manitoba polar bears; Zimbabwe’s crop-raiding elephants to Vancouver Island cougars.”
The wildlife scientists added hat it wasn’t like 148 hadn’t been given a chance.
“She has been given the benefit of the doubt for the last two years,” they wrote. “To reduce the risk of conflict with humans, she was tagged and moved several times to remote areas of Banff National Park, as well as being the target of hundreds of behavioural-conditioning events applied by professionals using dogs, cracker shells, bean bag projectiles and rubber bullets. Although these training tactics often work on large wild animals, they did not work very well on Bear 148. She did not carry away the desired lessons of submission, fear or permanent retreat.”
The biologists made the case for putting down Bear 148. The complicated politics of the situation made the case for another approach. Parks Canada, the Canadian version of the U.S. National Park Service, got involved and the Province of Alberta made a decision to once more move the bear – this time hauling her more than 300 miles north and west to the edge of the border with British Columbia.
“All government land and resource managers must make difficult decisions to balance the safety of residents with the needs of wildlife,” said a written statement from Parks Canada. “The province of Alberta made such a decision in relocating Bear 148.”
Paul Frame, the carnivore specialist for the Alberta Environment and Parks’ Fish and Wildlife Policy Branch, was left to make case that with Bear 148 far out of sight all would be fine.
“Frame says there’s a high likelihood she’ll settle into her new home in northwest Alberta,” reported Canada’s Global News.
The history on relocating bears would indicate it’s not quite that simple, as Anchorage residents well know.
When there arose a bit of a public outcry about a plan to execute a family of bears causing problems in the city’s Government Hill area in the spring of 2015, new Gov. Bill Walker intervened to save their lives by ordering them trapped and relocated.
The bears, “whose pending deaths inspired passionate public outcry both in Alaska and Outside,” were “saved,” wrote Alaska Dispatch News reporter Jeannette Lee Falsey.
The decision flew in the face of studies conducted in Alaska and elsewhere that indicated relocating bears doesn’t work so well. The animals either return to their home ranges; revert to their old, troublesome behaviors in their new locations; or end up killed by people, other bears or an unfamiliar new environment.
“Translocations are expensive, costing agencies human resources and money that could be spent on habitat conservation measures or elimination of attractants. In addition, the relatively poor success of translocation programs may erode credibility of an entire management program,” Montana biologists observed in a 1994 study. “High mortality experienced by translocated bears may be unacceptable in situations where populations are declining or population viability is a concern.”
Even Frame’s data raised questions about the “high likelihood” of 148’s survival. Frame did not return phone calls for this story.
He did tell Global News that “an analysis of trans-located, radio-collared bears spanning from 2004 to 2011 showed four of six females survived without coming into conflict for the year they were monitored. One did not survive and the other was in a human-bear conflict.”
That small sample would indicate a one-in-three chance Bear 148 dies and a one-in-six chance she mauls someone before being killed.
Lori Homstol, a wildlife biologist from Premberton, British Columbia, who has for a couple of decades been involved with programs to teach bears to avoid people in B.C., Alberta, Montana and the Yukon Territory, said she doesn’t give Bear 148 much of a chance.
She said it’s nice to believe the bear will survive the move, but it’s not all that realistic.
For the Government Hill bears Walker was reported to have saved, a move that made him a temporary hero for some, things didn’t work out so well. The bears were flown across Turnagain Arm to the north end of the Kenai Peninsula, an area with a large population of resident bears.
The newcomers avoided any problems with the resident bears by immediately turning upwind to the smell of what they knew well – people. Only days after being moved, the bears – a sow and her four year-old cubs showed up in the small community of Hope about 30 miles east of where they’d been dropped off.
It didn’t take the bears long to get into serious trouble there.
“On Saturday, June 13, the Porcupine Campground host reported that the collared bears had torn apart a campsite by shredding a tent, damaging a vehicle, and digging through coolers,” Jeannine Jabaay would later report in The Turnagain Times. “Previously, the bears had been credited to feasting on local chickens and acting aggressively toward a Boy Scout troop hiking near the campground.
“‘This isn’t the first time a tagged problem bear came to Hope,’ Fayrene Sherrit, the owner of Hope’s fine art gallery, told Jabaay. ‘The last time I can remember was several years ago when a large brown bear found its way to Hope. It caused all sorts of problems. And one day, it started coming into someone’s home, and they had to kill it.'”
Sherrit’s words were prophetic. Three days after Jabaay’s story ran, one of the yearling bears climbed into a van to join someone relaxing inside. That was enough for state wildlife biologists.
Over the course of the next two days, state and Forest Service shooters killed four of the five bears. The fifth bear ran off never to be seen again. It is possible the other executions left it with the message humans are to be avoided.
No Anchorage bears have been relocated since. Only time will tell if Bear 148 survives. That is a possibility. But what wildlife biologists have learned about bears over the years is pretty simple:
Often times, relocating the problem bears does nothing but relocate the problem either for people, the bear or sometimes both.