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Bears, bears, bears

black bear

Alaska black bear/Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo

The bears have invaded Seward, AK. One got shot in the foot. And now there is a bit of social media debate underway.

The good news is that Seward Police Chief Tom Clemens said the bear shot Monday night appears to have suffered only minimal injuries, and it appears the shooting might have led the sow to conclude that the middle of the small port city 128-miles south of Anchorage is not a good place for a bear to hang out.

“We have not seen that bear since,” Clemons said Tuesday.

Police officers tracked the bleeding bear for a short distance on Monday, he added, but not far. A problem developed:

“No blood trail,” he said.

Bears are amazingly tough animals. National Park Service biologists note the history of Bear 420 at the much-visited Brooks River in bear-filled Katmai National Park and Preserve:

“In 2005, he was seen with a very large, open wound on the left front leg that has since healed and scarred over. In 2007, he returned to Brooks River with a broken lower jaw and large, open wounds on both sides of his body.

“The jaw injury appeared to affect his ability to chew and swallow fish that he caught. However, he showed signs of rapid healing, both from the jaw injury and wounds on his body. In 2009 and 2010, he was one of the most dominant bears fishing at Brooks Falls.”

Life with bears

Alaskans love their bears when they aren’t fearing their bears of which there are daily reports in Seward.

The Monday encountered started with a barking dog named Lucy as Maranda Leary recounted at the “Seward, AK Bear & Wildlife Report” on Facebook, which has become an electronic bulletin board for small communities in the north.

“My boyfriend and I live next to the Post Office on Fifth (Avenue) and woke up in the middle of the night to my dog going crazy and pacing our bedroom,” she wrote.

Fifth Avenue and Madison Street, where the post office is located, is pretty much dead center in the middle the resort and fishing community of about 3,000.

With the dog barking, the boyfriend thought it best to check outside for prowlers.

“Unfortunately him and Lucy startled a black bear sow and two cubs. The bear turned to charge him and he had to shoot,” Leary continued. “The bear was hit in the leg or foot. Cops found her and her babies OK and still in the area. For those who live by the Post Office, our alley ways lined with trash cans look like a buffet for the bears. The cops pointed out that not everyone had bear proof cans and suggested we pour some bleach around our cans to deter the bears from getting into them.

“They also warned that now that she is hurt she may be more agitated then usual so just keep an eye out. Lucy will be getting a very nice bone today.”

Cue the debates

The post almost immediately started two discussions, one about garbage and the other about guns.

Almost every community in Alaska these days – even Anchorage, the state’s only real city in the modern sense – has a problem with bears and garbage.

“Bears like garbage,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes on one of its several “Living with Bears” web pages. “Garbage is both nutritious and available, which makes it ideal bear food.”

The page sports a black-and-white photo of three dead bears in the back of a pickup truck. “A sow and three cubs, destroyed as the direct result of improper garbage storage and disposal,” the caption below reads.

The page notes it is illegal to feed bears in Alaska, and repeats an adage now being heard across the country as black bear numbers have mushroomed in many states: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

“Bears that are intentionally or unintentionally fed by people become accustomed to being around people and are more likely to cause property damage or inadvertently injure a person,” notes the website Bear Smart. “Unfortunately, bears that are fed and come into frequent contact with people are often destroyed, not for what they have done, but for what people are afraid they might do.”

Most Seward residents seemed to get that and jumped on the need for bear-proof garbage containers, though many noted a $375 cost. Despite that expense, bear-resistant cans are slowly becoming the norm in many of Alaska’s larger communities. Alaska Waste in Anchorage  now rents a 96-gallon bear-resistant can for only about 60 cents per month more than a regular 96-gallon can. 

Kill ’em all….

On the subject of shooting the bear, there was considerably more debate. Discussions of shooting bears in urban Alaska are usually defined by the extremes.

On one side, there are those who believe urban areas should be maintained as largely bear-free zones. On the other side are those who believe there is almost never a cause to shoot a bear.

Boyfriend Hans attracted attention from both:

“The bear. Protecting her cubs. Charged at him. The way I see it, is he’s lucky he had that gun,” one Seward resident posted. “And I would have done the same thing, If I could think and act that fast.”

“The bear could have mauled him and people would still jump down his throat about shooting it,” added another. “People are ridiculous.”

The bear could have mauled him, according to the authorities on bears. Black bears have killed two people in Alaska this year.

But the odds of being killed by a black bear sow with cubs are very, very low. Over the past 109 years, only three sows are known to have been involved in fatal attacks on people. A 2011 study of North American black bear attacks from 1900 to 2009 found black bear sows (grizzlies are a wholly different matter), the least dangerous of black bears.

“Adult or subadult male bears were involved in in 92 percent of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears,” wrote lead author Stephen Herrero of Canada, the dean of North American bear researchers. “That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by
one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.”

In an interview, Herrero said the characteristic behavior of black bear sows is to bluff. They may blow, huff or slap the ground with their paws, but that doesn’t mean they are going to attack.

Herrero and other researchers have also determined that the most dangerous black bear is not the one acting aggressively, it’s the one sneaking up on you. That they say is the sign of a rare but dangerous predatory black bear. Most bears are not that bear. 

Differing comfort levels

“When I was doing field work, we’d run into multiple black bears. This was for the state in Colorado, and we were going in to necropsy their kills. They may false charge but it’s rare for an attack,” texted Heather MacIntyre, now a resident of Seward and one of those questioning Hans’ reaction.

“I’m sure the bear was false charging, as she had cubs in the area. If the person was concerned I think he should have called the police who are a minute away from his house. Now the bear is injured and much more dangerous.”

There is little evidence to indicate injured black bears are any more or less dangerous than any other black bears, and it’s hard to fault someone shooting an animal when they feel their life is threatened.

MacIntyre suggested better education to train people to recognize which bears are most dangerous and which least might help, along with more practical measures.

“The town should buy bear proof dumpsters for everyone, or they should be available in a cost-effective program,” she wrote. ” Those who can afford to pay may and those who cannot should get subsidized.

“(And) you can use bear dogs, trained for unconditioning bears, or shotguns with rubber rounds … the options are endless.”

Some, however, would question the simple economics of trying to train black bears to avoid people. Bluntly put, it is a lot easier to shoot and kill them. That might be distasteful to some, maybe many. But the state has no shortage of black bears.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates a population of at least 100,000.

On the Kenai Peninsula, where the community of Seward is located, the agency says, “the black bear population appears stable. Black bears appear in greater densities along the southern outer coast, probably due to healthy salmon runs coupled with low densities of competing brown bears. About 3,000 to 4,000 black bears are estimated in this area.”

Hunters, on average, already kill about 400 a year back in the woods where no one notices. But killing bears in urban areas is a different matter. Urban wildlife – bear sows with cubs in particular – attract a lot more love than wild wildlife.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker intervened to save a sow and four cubs threatened with death in Anchorage in 2015. They were live captured and flown to the Kenai Penisula south of the city. Not long after, the bears showed up in the community of Hope looking for food. Four of the five were eventually shot.

One can debate at length what to do with bears that discover the ease of living off the food humans throw away, but there is no good or easy answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 reply »

  1. Actually, Seward and Anchorage have a readily available option for handling bears “that discover the ease of living off the food humans throw away”. This option makes perfect sense, but it is not cheap (unless you spend money like Bill Walker does to relocate bears). The solution is to transport bears to where there are no humans and to where bear populations are depleted from overhunting. That would be islands in Prince William Sound – Knight Island in particular. Or Eleanor, Chenga, Culross, Elrington or Bainbridge Islands or the Church National Forest mainland areas just west of these islands. These are logical problem bear relocation spots, if you want to spend the money to get the bears there.

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