A young, Bird Creek grizzly bear that concluded the easiest way to obtain salmon was to take them from fishermen is dead.
Chugach State Park chief ranger Ben Corwin shot the bear Saturday after pepper spray proved ineffective in driving it away from a hugely popular fishery along the Seward Highway.
Problems with the grizzly along the angler-lined creek have been increasing for several days, Corwin said in a telephone interview. Despite approaching people to within 10 feet and being pepper sprayed, he said, the bear just didn’t want to retreat to the closed-to- fishing and angler-free part of the creek only about 400 yards upstream from a highway bridge that regularly thunders with traffic.
After the bear was sprayed Saturday, Corwin said, it went and grabbed a salmon a fishermen was trying to pull to shore and stole it off the angler’s hook.
When the ranger arrived on the scene, the bear was in a standoff with a group of anglers who didn’t want to give up their fish. Anglers are advised to keep bears from getting their salmon if at all possible because once bears learn they can get fish from people they will keep doing it.
“It had really become a public safety issue,” Corwin said.
Bird Creek hosts a state-enhanced salmon fishery that takes place on about 500 yards of water between closed-to-fishing signs and Turnagain Arm only 25 miles from downtown Anchorage. The entire fishery is visible from the highway where the traffic regularly flows heavy, and the bears have the creek drainage largely to themselves upstream from where anglers are often lined up shoulder to shoulder.
Despite the massive human presence, some bears have decided over the years that it is easier to take fish from humans than to fish for themselves. A pair of sub-adult grizzlies were a problem for most of the season last year, and Corwin thinks the bear he shot and killed Saturday might have been one of that pair.
He’s hopeful the other has gone back into the wild, although there have been reports of two young grizzlies in the area again this year.
“The one I shot today still had pepper spray in its face,” Corwin said. The pepper spray made even more difficult the job of skinning the bear to salvage the hide. The state saves the hides of bears killed in defense of life or property and annually sells them at auction.
The shooting, which comes only about week after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game executed a family of grizzly bears in the Hiland Road area of Eagle River north of the state’s largest city, drew immediate online criticism from some who protested that bear was just “trying to eat.”
But the public danger of food-conditioned bears is real.
Bears are big enough and powerful enough that they can injure or kill people without really trying. One person has died in the Anchorage area already this year.
An Eagle River hiker was killed by a bear June 20, which is what led to the later shooting of the sow and two cubs in the area where he died. DNA has shown the bear that killed 44-year-old Michael Soltis and then buried his remains as if planning to consume them later was a sow, possibly with cubs.
DNA also showed Fish and Game that gunners shot the wrong sow and cubs, but at least two other family groups have been reported in the Hiland Road area. Fish and Game authorities have said that they are prepared to kill the other sows if they can find them.
There has been a lot of bear activity around Anchorage this year, and some have begun to wonder whether regionally weak salmon runs are playing a role. Scientists studying bears in coastal British Columbia in 2013 concluded weak salmon runs can leave bears feeling stressed.
In a study published at Plus One, they reported that the cortisol levels in the hair of the bears clearly showed the bears were tense. Whether that would make them more aggressive towards humans is unclear, but the scientists noted “well-described social interactions over access to salmon often lead to aggressive encounters (between bears) and the establishment of dominance hierarchies. An influx of bears from the interior to salmon spawning streams in the fall would make the social dynamics particularly intense.”
They also warned that “if salmon returns consistently decline in the future, grizzly bears that do not obtain enough salmon might experience chronically elevated cortisol and testosterone via increased nutritional and/or social stress, with unknown, but probably adverse, fitness costs.”
Behaviour changes in grizzly and black bears in times of food shortages has not been well studied, but scientists studying polar bears last year reported in the Wildlife Society Bulletin “that nutritionally stressed adult male polar bears were the most likely to pose threats to human safety. “
Polars bears, however, are carnivores while grizzly and black bears are omnivores, which can survive on vegetation though coastal bears come to covet fat-rich salmon.
“It is important to recognize that nutrition can be a contributing factor to stress in wildlife but in and of itself, nutritional stress is not a sufficient explanation for predatory behavior by a bear on humans,” concluded biologists investigating a deadly 2010 grizzly attack in Montana.
Whether hunger would overpower a bear’s normal fear of humans and lead it to push boundaries in order to obtain salmon is less clear.