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Bears among us

 

 

HB4116

An Anchorage Hillside neighborhood bear/Craig Medred photo

Only a year after a predatory black bear killed a 16-year-old runner on Bird Ridge, a 44-year-old hiker is reported to have been killed by a grizzly bear 20 miles to the north near Anchorage’s Eagle River, leaving many in Alaska’s urban core to worry and wonder why.

Always after a bear attack in Alaska, it is like this. Always there is that desire for an explanation that satisfies the human desire to believe “it couldn’t have been me because….”

After Patrick Cooper died last year, there were some who wanted to believe it was because he was slightly built or small for his age, or that maybe he had run from the bear – the worst thing to do in the case of a predatory black bear, the rarest of rare bears.

For long after a grizzly bear killed  77-year-old Marcie Trent and son-in-law Larry Waldron, 45 on the McHugh Creek Trail in 1995 just south of the city along Turnagain Arm, many consoled themselves that it happened because Trent, a well-known local runner, and Waldron were out on a “run,” as if a 77-year-old woman could run uphill fastest enough to increase the odds of startling a bear.

The reality in the case of Trent and Waldron was that they were simply unlucky. They stumbled on a grizzly on a moose kill, and the animal acted aggressively to defend its food. Poorly trained dogs are known to behave the same way.

A 2007 study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that most dog bites to children under age six involve dogs that feel a need to defend their food. The big difference between dogs and bears is that the former can’t easily kill a human, even a child.

Bears, on the other hand, are massively powerful animals that can easily kill people. Trent and Waldron met a bear in a situation that left it hardwired to attack with maximum aggression, and they died.

Their deaths had almost been forgotten before the next bear fatality occurred in that small corner of the Big Wild Life called the “Anchorage metropolitan area,” a place now home to more than half of the population of the 49th state.

Good luck, bad luck

Everyone got lucky for a couple of decades. There is no other explanation.

Fifteen-year-old Petra Davis could easily have died in 2008 after running into a bear during an Anchorage mountain bike race and being badly mauled. But Peter Basinger, who knew enough first aid to begin to stop her bleeding, found her minutes after the attack, and she had a cell phone with her.

Basinger called 911. Help arrived quickly, something unusual in Alaska. And Davis recovered. She’s been back on the bike a long time now, often riding in bear country, seemingly unaffected by her near-death encounter.

There were other attacks before and after Davis, but none as serious. Most were like the attack at Eagle River last year before the tragedy on the Bird Ridge Trail. Four hikers met a sow grizzly with cubs. She charged them. There were scared and apparently knocked down. There were no serious injuries.

Only days later, Cooper was killed, and now there are two dead in two years in the Anchorage area.

Mike Solis, an avid hiker went for a Monday evening stroll in the Chugach Mountains near his Hiland Road home and never returned.

It was a tragedy that could have happened to many. Solis could have been any one of hundreds who daily go for an after work walk in the wild, half-million-acre Chugach State Park wilderness at Anchorage’s backdoor.

Solis’s body was found Wednesday after a man in a group of people searching for him since he went missing Monday was charged by a grizzly bear and bitten in the leg. Anchorage Police Department officers who went to look for the bear found the body of Solis, who “had died as a result of a bear attack,” according to an APD press release. “It appears the brown bear was protecting the body when it attacked a member of the search party.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have yet to confirm those details. The medical examiner has not determined the cause of Solis’s death, according to agency spokesman Ken Marsh, and not enough is known about the bear that attacked Solis to determine whether the bear was defending Solis’s body or another kill in the area or even cubs that no one happened to see.

Wildlife biologists are still investigating, Marsh messaged today, but the evidence so far points to Solis being the possible victim of a bear. Where that bear is remains a big unknown.

“We don’t have much specific information on the bear yet,” Marsh said. “Staff remained on scene well into the night in case the bear returned, but did not encounter the animal. The bear has not been seen since the searchers were attacked yesterday morning.”

Live traps have been set in the area in hopes of capturing the animal, but there are no guarantees. The bear that killed Trent and Waldrop was never found. It disappeared somewhere into the Chugach Mountains. There were no similar attacks in the surrounding area in the decade that followed.

Bearlandia

The lack of attacks wasn’t because of a lack of bears. There are always reports of bears in the McHugh Creek area. There was a report of a bear on the McHugh Creek Trail confronting hikers just this week. One man thought that bear was defending a kill.

There was another bear, or possibly the same bear, spotted on iconic Flattop Mountian above Anchorage just the other day visibly stalking a moose cow with a calf in hopes of making a kill.

Bear sightings and encounters on the edges of Anchorage are now common. They’re not at all unusual in the Hillside subdivisions above Anchorage, either, or in the residential parts of Eagle River north of the city. Bears are  sometimes even seen in the city itself.

As a result, a lot of Anchorage residents have come to take bear encounters somewhat for granted. Some like seeing the occasional bear walk through their yard. It is a sign that a bear population once suppressed by hunting has been returned to health even as Alaska’s largest urban area has grown.

There are now almost twice as many people living in the metropolitan area as in 1985.

There is a simple statistical reality as a result: More people plus more bears equals more chances for encounters. More chances for encounters equals more chances for something to go wrong.

​When the worst happens, messaged Tom Smith, a Brigham Young University wildlife professor, “it’s always a shock to the system, unexpected, and unfortunate. But from a coldly statistical point of view, this (latest attack) fits within the ‘norm,’ which is, over the years, zero to two deaths per year due to bear attacks (in Alaska).”

Smith used to work as a bear biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He still owns a cabin on an island in Skilak Lake and spends a lot of his summer there. And he maintains a data base on Alaska bear attacks.

His data helped form the basis for newly published paper on Human–Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015. Smith’s co-author was Canadian biologist Stephen Herrero, famous in the world of bears for the book “Bear Attacks – Their Causes and Avoidance.”

Among the new paper’s findings was confirmation of the obvious, “a strong, positive correlation between the increase of human–bear conflicts and human population growth in Alaska.

“This suggests that the more people work and recreate in bear country, the more likely conflict will occur,” although the paper does note another researcher’s findings of an uptick of bear attacks in places where problem bears are captured and relocated.

 

Alaska generally doesn’t relocate bears. Newly elected Gov. Bill Walker demonstrated why in 2015 when he and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten decided to save a problem family of black bears on Government Hill in Anchorage. 

Over the objections of state wildlife biologists, the bears were captured and flown to the Kenai Peninsula where they promptly moved upwind to the tiny community of Hope and began raiding camps for food. All but one were eventually killed because of the threat to human safety. The survivor apparently fled back to the wilderness.

What to do

The new paper on Alaska bear conflicts sheds little new light on what leads to bear attacks, but it did underline the few things known about what makes people more or less likely to be attacked and those things that improve the chances of survival if attacked.

“Human group size was a significant factor in bear conflicts,” the scientists noted. “The larger the group (two or greater persons), the less likely to be involved in a confrontation.

“Habitat visibility also contributed to conflict. The poorer the visibility the more likely bears were to engage with people, presumably because of an inability to detect them until very close.

“When involved, rescuers terminated maulings in 90.3 percent of cases, but were themselves mauled 9.7 percent of the time.”

All of these observations relate to the Solis case and largely to the Cooper case before it. Solis was hiking alone. Cooper, though he’d participated in a Bird Ridge foot race, was coming down the ridge and out of sight of other people when attacked.

Both Solis and Cooper were in brushy areas. Searchers in the Solis case were able to drive the bear away, although one of them was injured. Searchers in the Cooper case were not able to drive the bear off the young man’s body, but in part the situation was compounded by the fact the nearest people to the scene were alone or with other groups of kids.

For someone chaperoning a group of young people, the 1-in-10 chance someone is going to get mauled trying to save a mauling victim has to weigh heavy.

Experts on bears have been telling people to travel in groups in bear country for decades. Many, however, continue to hike alone comfortable with the statistical improbability of a bear attack.

The National Park Service estimates that your chances of being attacked by a bear in Yellowstone National Park, which is prime bear habitat similar to that in Alaska, are 1 in 232,000 days of hiking.

In other words, statistically,  if you spend the next 635 years hiking in the park every day you will likely be mauled, and that’s without correcting for winter when the bears hibernate.

Reality

Statics, however, provide little solace for the friends or family of someone killed by a bear, and they do little settle our fears about bears in the wake of a deadly attack.

We are immune to the dangers of motor vehicles because we live with them every day. We can easily dismiss the risk of driving to a trailhead – a far, far greater risk than being attacked by a bear – because motor vehicle accidents are a normal part of our world.

Bears, even for people living in areas bears frequent almost every day, are just far enough out of that world to cause fear.

On Wednesday night, Marsh was pondering what exactly to tell people in the wake of the latest deadly attack to try make them more comfortable. The obvious would be to tell them to never go into the woods alone, but such advice is unrealistic.

But there is this in the new report from Smith and Herrero:

  • “Bear spray was highly effective in Alaska, with 98 percent of persons using spray avoiding any injury.
  • “Firearms were effective 76 percent of the time when used as bear deterrents. (But) only skilled firearms users should rely primarily on firearms for bear protection.”

Cooper was not carrying bear spray or a gun. It is not known at this time if Solis was carrying either, but if he had bear spray with him and if he was killed by a bear he would be the first in Alaska to die while using spray.

Marsh seemed to be settling on that message. It only makes sense to carry a weapon, he said, be it spray or a gun.

Most people will probably never need to use a weapon against a bear, but it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

(Editor’s note: The author regularly hikes alone. He almost always carries bear spray or a firearm. He has been required to use a weapon against a bear. He shot a grizzly off his leg.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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28 replies »

  1. Allen,

    Which stream in Fairbanks has salmon spawning in the heart of town? Tribs on the outskirts of town have salmon, yes, but not close to downtown or the center of a military base like Jbear has. Nothing comparable. You would have to have fish spawning under the Cushman Street bridge to compare to Ship Creek or Campbell Creek.

    I have never seen a king salmon-reliant bear population. Chums, pinks, reds, silvers, and even one area where they feed on candlefish. Rare to see them with, or feeding on Kings. Maybe on Kodak?

    I worked in Anchorage on salmon restoration and base hatcheries in the 60’s and bears were scarce. We walked and waded all those streams counting spawners and seldom saw a bear. One year less than 150 kings spawned in Ship Creek. Another year poachers took as many as spawned, we guessed. The hatcheries in the cooling ponds pumped tens of thousands of smoldering into area waters.

    My vote is increased salmon runs account for larger bear pops in Anchortown.

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    • Tom: that situation certainly changed in Anchorage. so much so that for a time there was a bear viewing stand on Campbell Creek up from the police station.
      i have not gone to see if it is still there, but the salmon population in that creek – a bear vulnerable population – is an attraction.
      so, too, the city’s high-density moose population. bears seems as smart as an above-average moose hunter: if you want to kill a moose, go to where the moose are most concentrated.
      the rule applies doubly when the moose are calving. one of my neighbors on the website Nextdoor posted photos of a cow with twins in her yard a couple days ago followed shortly thereafter with a photo of a grizzly sniffing around.
      twins usually don’t last long around here anymore.
      it’s almost like in the wild.

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  2. Hey Craig, I remember an article you wrote admonishing a young man for carrying an ak-47 for bear protection after it most likely saved his life. I think it was along the arm but I’m certain you remember the details.
    I’ve read your articles since I moved here and I still haven’t a clue what you stand for or believe in.

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    • Reason, K.; reason.
      There were so many things strange about that shooting…. I questioned the guy’s spray-and-pray shooting style on one of the most heavily used trails in the Anchorage area. He sent a lot more bullets down the trail than he put in the bear. I probably should have admonished him.

      I probably had too much sympathy for the fact he could simply have been fearful. Whatever the case, there were better ways. https://www.adn.com/voices/article/another-hiker-shot-alaska-bear-dead-cue-pointless-debates/2013/08/01/

      Mainly, he appeared to have about as much excuse to shoot that bear as I had to shoot the second of two last night, the one that now seems to show no apparent fears of humans. That’s never a good thing. But what does Anchorage become if we shoot every bear we see based on the idea that it’s not running for its life at the hint of a human?

      I’m willing to give them a little more room than that. Where to draw the line, however, provides a lot of room for debate.

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      • https://www.quora.com/Why-are-military-rounds-much-smaller-than-hunting-rounds

        The .223 is a little small for moose hunting or bear protection (although it obviously can be effective…especially with a FMJ round).
        The AK 47 fires a bit larger round which is essentially a short version of a modern .308.
        The .308 round comes in a variety of different grain cartridges…up to a 180 grain round.
        Most guides would say that any 180 grain rifle cartridge (or larger) is the preferred round when hunting bears, so in theory an AK 47 weapon could work with the right ammo.
        I have a friend in willow who has killed several moose during hunting season with his .308 rifle and says it is a very effective round.

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      • The .308 round (bullet) comes in a 200 grain. the 308 caliber my only come in 180 grain max.

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      • Steve, I don’t know where you got your information about what most guides say about a preferred round for hunting bears, but its just not the case for hunting brown bears IMO. I believe they all say that at a minimum a 338 is recommended and that is the preferred gun for many guides, as well.
        I use 250 grain bullets in my 338 for moose and they work fine for them-I don’t hunt bears so don’t have personal info for bears. 225 grain bullets are also available for 338 but I’ve not had experience with them for moose.

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      • Bill is correct . About guides . 225 grain is awesome! Interesting thing is Steve also right ! At 2am My dad when to chicken coop with a .223 to chase off a coyote . Problem was it was a large brown bear . It rushed him up close in the large coop . 15 round clip . Bear died . He turned it in as DLP fish and game let us eat it . Side note . My brother shot a caribou with 223 aprx 30 years ago through heart took a lot of steps hard to find . We couldn’t find the hole on outside. Was practically a pin prick . .223 sucks for hunting. Brush deflection poor expansion inadequate exit hole . It sure did kill that very large brown bear though! Extreme Close range .

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      • Reason guides prefer.338 is becouse fair trajectory , massive stopping power ,bone breakage, major tissue destruction, all of that is nessasary to stop large game with one shot when it’s excaping or charging at close range . Guides often only get to shoot when animal full of adrenaline and about to disappear so one shot – or when client wounds the animal and it attacks at close range . Split second shot . Barely enough time to aim rarely enough time for second shot . But when you get good a bolt action is as fast as a semi automatic! Special teqnique . Good guides hate slings . Keep it your hand .

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      • Full metal jacket very bad idea for bear protection. No expansion. Angry bear keeps coming. Back in 50s My dad was in military free metal jacket ammo for 30:06 . Bear broke into house every day for lunch . Scared wife and kid up on into loft while my dad was at work. Wife left to his parents demanding dad resolve before return . Dad waited on porch at lunch time . Brown bear came like clockwork. Dad shot multiple times but bullets passed through with little damage . Broke back leg but bear rushed onto porch dad outa bullets – grabbed .22 stepped aside as bear lunged , slammed it behind ear pulled trigger as teeth popped next him . Bear died . Don’t use metal jacket ammo on bears . That’s my understanding anyway.

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      • Here is a link to AK fish and game site where they say large magnum rifle cartridges are not needed for large brown bears…they also feel accuracy and practice with weapon are most important factors…they suggest that a 30-06 with 180 grain bullet is fine.
        I have also seen this on guides websites up here that operate out in the Yentna Basin.
        I shoot a 300 win mag with a 180 grain Remington “Core Lokt” round.
        I also like the 10MM pistol cartridge in 200 grain solid hard cast lead for personal protection while fishing or biking through the brush.
        http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=hunting.firearms

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      • Well Steve, I sure can’t argue with being able to shoot what you carry. Several of my hunting partners also successfully use 30-06 for their moose hunting. My own reasons for 338 had to do with my deer hunting on Admiralty Island and felt the need for more power in case of a brown bear attack. I’ve not regretted it since as I’ve taken 4 bulls over the last about 9 years and used 5 bullets combined for them.
        As for your 300 mag., I watched a friend kill a mt. goat in 1968 with one at over 450 yards. Most impressive shot I’ve witnessed. The gun is certainly capable of fairly flat shooting but I don’t remember what weight bullet was used.

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      • Hi Steve . I looked at fish and game website. That site saying magnums not needed is mostly discussing hunting / not bear protection. So it’s not technically applicable to this article. Except importance of shot placement. Fish and game doesn’t make make their living protecting hunters , meat , families,children, livestock and others . So basically that article is not applicable. If you take a survey of all Alaska guides they will mostly say .338 or better is preferred. . 375 is technically the correct bear hunting and protection rifle . Keep in mind just because a government agency wrote it doesn’t mean it’s true . Their article will put many peoples lives in danger . They compare 30:06 gut shot game with .338 gut shot and make very faulty conclusion result would be same . Any one who got through grade school can calculate weight of bullet times speed to get mass . = energy. .338 out does 30:06 several times . No matter where you hit an animal with a heavy fast bullet it’s going to be more traumatic than a bullet with less energy unless you are foolish enough to use full metal jacket witch passes through without transferring its energy to the animal. Your 300 win mag is awesome cartridge! It’s not the best for protection though as higher speed light bullets defect and come apart when accidentally hitting brush . A common occurrence when protecting yourself from bears . Be it a random charge or going into the brush after an enraged wounded brown bear . You will not feel comfortable in that situation with smaller cartridges. Hunt with whatever you want but for bear protection forest service recommends .375 that’s what many of their inexperienced employees carry .

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      • Bill,
        It is funny that we have finally found something we have in common.
        I have also harvested 4 bulls over the last nine years.
        I wish I had found more “legal” moose, but I am also very grateful for the harvest and the food it provided my friends and family each time.
        Everyone who hunts seriously for big game in AK has their favorite rifle cartridge, as I have many friends who are very attached to their 338 magnums.
        338 seems like a very reasonable choice for hunting.
        as for pure “self defense”….well, most hunters choose their rifle for accuracy, reliability, and availability (many are handed down from family).
        Here is an article by Steve Meyer that I found that discusses the choice of rifle for hunting in Alaska.
        I personally like the 300 win mag for the long shots on moose in open meadows…
        My experience is that there is virtually no noticeable drop at 200 yards…
        https://www.adn.com/outdoors-adventure/2017/02/07/best-all-around-caliber-for-alaska-big-game-hunting-can-there-be-just-one/

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  3. I bet this is the “Mama” bear of the two young grizz that fish and game just killed last week in Eagle River…just a hunch, but seems like “An eye for an eye” code of nature to me.

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  4. all Black bears are predatory. Not just rogue bears . Any other classification puts people at risk . To print or pass on any other concept should be considered a mistake and dangerous. This is a scientific fact as they eat meat as well as plants . Alaska bears are opertunists . Treat each one as predatory. This will reduce human deaths and maulings . This concept comes from sience as well as many personal and family interactions with Alaska bears . My understanding of research says some brown bears may eat primarily vegetation . These are extreme exception .

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  5. I’ll make an attempt here, Al. Interior grizzlies are not good at living around people-at least not as good as coastal brown bears. And those liberal seasons on interior grizzlies help at keeping their numbers down close to town.
    As for black bears, I suspect that a typical black bear that starts on a garbage run is pretty quickly moved into someone’s freezer. The garbage bears in Juneau have free reign to garbage here as we can’t shoot within 1/4 mile of a road. I suspect in Fbks. shooting is encouraged where bears are active.

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    • Thanks Bill for the insight. So can i conclude, that one possible solution to lessen the bear issues in the Anchorage area and Juneau, is to lift some of the harvest restrictions that are plagued by both areas?

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      • As far as I know Juneau has not had any recent deaths, relative to its bear issues, so it’s more of just an inconvenience with black bears getting into garbage. A more liberal bear season allowing bow hunters to thin them would keep the firearm situation from becoming a problem IMO.
        I don’t have an answer for Los Anchorage. Folks there don’t mind those brownies living in their midst and they like seeing them. The trade-off would be that those bears would make themselves pretty scarce IMO if folks started shooting them.
        Anchorage also has a large number of moose right in town and brown bears love moosemeat. Juneau did have a brown bear kill a moose near a popular trail this Spring but no other problems occurred. We did have a black bear kill two dogs about a month ago but that was the bear defending itself so nobody got too upset. Our bears here in Juneau tend to be better behaved than those interior grizzlies.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Bill,
      Let’s not forget there are not many King Salmon returning to S.C. this summer…that hits at Brown bear’s food source and drives them to look for other sources of protein.

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      • Boy, I don’t know Steve, but my observations are that Brown Bears eat a lot of pinks and chums that flood the creeks in SE. They will eat any salmon they can catch but there need to be large numbers of them IMO. I’ve watched Chichagof Island Brown Bears catch pinks and some are better fishermen than others. When the pinks are thick you can expect to see Brown Bears there and Admiralty Island as well. Timothy Treadwell’s bears were mostly eating sockeyes.
        I really don’t think many Brown Bears are driven to seek out human protein because they can’t find king salmon. This particular bear may just be hungry for other reasons. Hopefully they are able to find this particular bear and learn from it.

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  6. It seems odd to me that Fairbanks,a major urban area. Does not have the issues that the anchorage area has with bear encounters/deaths. Also does not seem to fit some of the data cited in the article. Fairbanks city is well populated, but most people live in the surrounding area with in a 30 mile radius.We have no trash can requirements. people are raising chickens, live stock, burning trash, we have no less than 20 transfer sites, a state park with miles of trail systems, hiking and bike paths aglore, ect,ect. Yet when was the last time you heard of a bear mauling in the Fairbanks North Star Borough? Could it be this area has no close season on black bear harvest and the grizzly bear season is only closed 3 months out of the year.
    I would also have say the Fairbanks population has also double. So how would the authors of the above article address the very rare, almost no existence of bear mauling on the Fairbanks area?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Allen: i’m guessing you know the answer to your questions.

      bear densities in the Fairbanks area are significantly lower than in the Anchorage area, part of that being food. you have no salmon runs. Alaska has enhanced salmon runs at Campbell Creek, Ship Creek and Bird Creek plus moose running everywhere here along the coast where the climate is more accommodating than in Fairbanks.

      the warmer climate boosts moose carrying capacity in general. the lack of human hunting doesn’t hurt.

      and then, there is the tolerance issue. bears running around in out-of-the-city Fairbanks neighborhoods the way they do on the Anchorage Hillside or in parts of Eagle River would quickly become hides.

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      • Thanks Craig, But Fairbanks does have salmon runs. Kings,slivers,chums, spawn in dozens of streams and rivers off the Tanana river. Runs of salmon are showing up now and will continue till freeze up.
        As far as bear densities go. It maybe true that there is a higher density in the Anchorage area, than the Fairbanks area. Could it be that bears are managed in the Fairbanks area under maximum sustained yield principles? Allowing maximum opportunity for harvest. If you are correct in believing the Anchorage area has a higher bear density. It would seem there should be more opportunity to harvest bears, under sustained yield. The BOG does have the authority to make regulations for the safety concerns I believe the BOG has avoided changing regulations that would help lower bear densities in the Anchorage area and potentially lower the bear human conflicts.
        You probably hit the nail on the head with “tolerance”. People in Fairbanks love to recreate without the fear of being mauled and not many pass up and opportunity to harvest wild food resources. I am sure when you where at UAF recently on the hill, you notice how Fairbanks is just a small place surround by wilderness. Fairbanks is just minutes away from bear country and only miles away from no cell reception.
        I guess the issue will never go away. People in the Anchorage area are willing to gamble with their safety in exchange for recreating along side apex predators that are mainly unpredictable.

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