UPDATE – This story was edited from the original to include the latest bear kill numbers in the greater Anchorage area.
On the day the residents of Seward started fretting over how to save two grizzly bear cubs orphaned when their mother was shot raiding a chicken coop, the signs went up along Anchorage’s Rabbit Creek Road asking the question of what to do about bears.
The big city which once marketed itself as home to the Big Wild Life has joined some other Alaska communities in again pondering whether it has too much of the big wildlife.
One hundred, twenty-five miles to the south at the head of Resurrection Bay, small town residents have been using the Facebook page of “Seward, AK Bear & Wildlife Report” since June to track and monitor their own minor bear invasion that began working toward a peak with the arrival of more than 10,000 hatchery salmon at aptly named Bear Creek in July.
The comments on the page nicely chronicle the complicated relationship between bears and people in Alaska’s urban underbelly in the 21st Century.
Some people love the bears. A few people hate the bears. And a whole lot of people like the bears when not fearing the bears.
It’s simply hard not to love the little bears in a world where kids grow up cuddling teddy bears.
Just as it’s hard not to fear – or at least hold a deep respect for – the big bears, especially the big grizzly bears, that can kill someone without really trying.
The fear factor amped up in the region in June when a sow grizzly killed and made plans to eat 44-year-old Michael Soltis of Eagle River, a suburb just north of Anchorage. The bear later attacked a searcher looking for Soltis after the man stumbled upon the bear’s food cache.
Coming on the heels of a predatory black bear attack that left a 16-year-old runner dead along a trail just east of the state’s largest city in 2017, the latest attack left the majority of the state population that lives in the Anchorage metropolitan area with ample reason to be wary, although there are no records of bears habitually preying on people.
Bear attacks almost always happen as the result of random encounters and the complicated interactions that follow.
As Fairbanks wildlife biologist John Hechtel, an authority on bears, notes, the vast majority of encounters end with a bear sneaking or running away. No one knows how many thousands of such encounters take place in any given Alaska summer.
Likewise, Hechtel said, no one knows how many encounters there are wherein bears and people face off, jointly decide not to escalate the encounter, and eventually go their own ways. No one even knows how many times bears are pepper sprayed in Alaska in the summer and thus learn that life around people sometimes comes with some consequences.
There is no registry for any of this information. All the world is sure to find out about are the people mauled or killed by bears.
Attacks have increased over the years, too, as Alaska has grown and the views of a society that waged war on bears in the 1940s and 1950s have changed. Over the course of the past decade, there have been an average of 7.6 bear-human incidents per year, according to a study done by Canadian biologist Stephen Herrero and wildlife professor Tom Smith of Brigham Young University.
Deaths, however, remain oddities with less than one per year on average, Smith said. That it is rare to be attacked by a bear and even more rare to be killed by one does not, however, do much to ease primordial fears.
And they invariably ratchet upward when people start seeing a lot of bears around because there is no denying the mathematical reality that if you increase the number of people or the number of bears or both within a given area, the odds of something bad happening go up.
It’s a simple density issue.
If there are fewer bears and fewer people, there will be fewer opportunities for them to interact than if there are many bears and many people. If political leaders want to reduce human bear encounters, the only way to do it is to reduce the human population or the number of bears.
“In Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden) brown bear-inflicted injury and death rates were much lower during the 20th Century than during 1750-1900. Scandinavian biologists attribute this to a reduction in risk factors, especially wounding of bears by hunters,” wildlife biologists Stephen Stringham and Lynn Rogers observed in paper published in the Journal of Behavior last year. “To that list we add better medical care, and a much lower ratio of bears to humans. The brown bear population in Scandinavia crashed from approximately 10,000 bears in the mid-18th century to a few hundred by the end of the 19th Century, then rebounded to less 1,000 by the end of the 20th Century. ”
Stringham is based on the Kenai Peninsula where he runs the Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program in Soldotna. Rogers, who sometimes guides in Katmai National Park and Preserve, operates the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minn.
Among the fraternity of bear researchers, they are generally known as bear lovers, and their paper is largely directed at their views on how to increase the chances of seeing bears in national parks.
“Wildlife viewing is a popular form of recreation, an important scientific tool, and a goldmine for communities near wildlife concentrations,” they write. “Especially popular are animals that continue natural behavior while viewers are within photographic range. Reciprocally, an animal’s experience with benign viewers tends to further habituate its fear of humans (its anthropophobia). Yet boldness and habituation by large mammals are widely regarded as unnatural and dangerous. This creates a dilemma for managers of viewable wildlife, especially in America’s national parks where maximizing naturalness is mandated.”
They recognize the upside of human-habituated wildlife – they’re more easily seen by people – but cannot ignore the risks on the downside.
Stringham and Rogers, who’ve spent a lot of time working around wild bears in Alaska, largely dismiss the idea that bears are naturally wary of humans and describe them as “neutral.” European scientists, involved in the EU Large Carnivore Initiative take a somewhat different view. They live around mixed urban-rural habitats more like those of the Anchorage area.
“For bears it is generally assumed that they initially avoid and fear people, probably due to past persecution by humans and consequent artificial selection against bold individuals,” they wrote in a 2015 report. “Therefore bear tolerance towards humans today is usually a consequence of habituation process.”
People, they argue, whether by accident or design, can train bears to overcome their fear of humans in exchange for rewards. Bear man Charlie Vandergaw, a one-time Anchorage school teacher who took up residence in the wilderness of the Yentna River drainage north of the city in the summers, was a master at it.
Vandergaw used treats and a cattle prod to turn wild bears – grizzly and black alike – into his own, private circus act. What Vandergaw did on purpose to get bears to behave as he wanted in wild Alaska some in civilized Alaska do by accident to unwittingly get bears to behave badly.
“….Behaviour is strengthened or weakened via consequences, such as reward or punishment,” as the Europeans wrote. “Food-conditioning is a type of operant conditioning, in which an animal learns to associate a given neutral stimulus (e.g. a presence of people) with reward in a form of high caloric food (e.g. various anthropogenic (human) food sources, such as garbage.”
Stringham and Rogers don’t disagree, stating that “as animals learn to associate food or other attractants with humans, these lures could overcome fear of being near humans. Neither boldness nor trust for humans should be equated with aggressiveness. Nevertheless, there are situations where boldness can increase likelihood of encounters so close that there is high risk of the bears conflicting with humans over attractants or of becoming dangerously defensive. Boldness – whether genetically determined or the result of habituation – and attractant-conditioning, are widely regarded as major causes of conflict between humans and a variety of wildlife, including canids (e.g., wolves Canis lupus and coyotes C. latrans), bears, ungulates (e.g., African elephants) and primates (e.g., baboons).”
An invitation to stay
Bears can quickly come to associate garbage with the supermarket, dog food with a fine restaurant, and the fowl coop with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Once bears make these associations, their behavior becomes hard to change.
The Europeans list all the tricks that can be tried – pepper spray, rubber bullets, chasing with dogs, cracker shells, pyrotechnics, rock throwing, sling-shooting, and thiabendazol, a drug that makes bears sick – and then note their minimal effectiveness.
In the short-term, all work somewhat in that they drive bears off. In the long-term, most are largely ineffective, reporting failure rates of 90 percent or worse except in Sequoia National Park in California. There an active black bear harassment program claimed a 59 percent success rate, but the study noted the success was built on early intervention.
If bears are stopped before they get into garbage or other goodies, or shortly after their first encounter, their behavior can be changed. If not, they are likely to become problems, concluded the European study, which wasn’t shy about the ultimate solution in densely inhabited areas.:
“Lethal removal of bears was a widespread measure used in response to bear incidents in the past. Especially when entire bear population is removed, this can be very effective method for preventing conflicts. However, by modern standards such practice became largely unacceptable and for many populations even limited removal can have strong negative effects.
“Due to low reproduction rates, bears are generally very sensitive to increased human-caused mortality and overharvest is a common concern. Increasing public intolerance towards killing of charismatic animals in the last decades also often limits use
of this measure.
“Lethal removal of bears is most effective when focused on problem bears,” they added. “General culling of the population has usually limited effectiveness.”
The second-to-last conclusion there could be read to argue for a continuation of the existing approach to bear management in most of urban Alaska: shootings by authorities when necessary and possibly backed up by what are called “DLP kills” as in “defense of life and property.”
It is legal for anyone to kill a bear in Alaska to defend themselves or their property. Anchorage proper witnessed 17 law enforcement and DLP kills last year. There were 21 in the greater Anchorage-Eagle River area, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with another 13 killed in the communities of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) to the north and west of the city, and Bird and Girdwood to the south and east of the city.
The continuing bear problems in Alaska’s largest city this year would indicate those removals had little or no effect on bears at a population level. Department spokesman Ken Marsh reported 37 killed so far this year within the entire Municipality of Anchorage (MOA) – up from a total of 34 last year – but he noted the MOA covers nearly 2,000-square-miles.
It is almost exactly halfway between the states of Rhode Island and Delaware in size. Marsh said data on past DLP-kill rates is harder to dig out of the files, but it has varied.
Kills in the city have gone up and down over the years as bears move into the urban area from the refuge of adjacent Chugach State Park, a half-million acre wilderness area. Twenty-one bears died in Anchorage proper in 2005 with 19 shot and two hit by cars.
The number spiked upward again in 2008 after two maulings in the city’s Far North Bicentennial Park left a runner injured and a 15-year-old mountain biker near death. Both recovered, but those attacks and others led CBS-News to at the time headline: “Anchorage Plagued by Bear Attacks.”
The municipality held a meeting to discuss what to do. There was much discussion about bears being lured into neighborhoods and then encouraged to linger there when they gained access to garbage.
Some people got better at taking care of their garbage, but the plague appeared to cool down largely due to population control. The boldest bears were shot and killed, or run down and killed by motor vehicles, and bear sightings decreased.
Everyone took a deep breath and things went back to normal until they once again circled back around to the other end of normal. As a result, many in the city a decade later are worrying and talking, about what to do.
Anchorage Assemblyman John Weddleton, a witness to the bear attack that killed the young runner last year, pushed the Thursday Anchorage meeting to discuss bears. The solutions are physically simple, but destined to be politically complicated.
There were a lot of people in bear-filled Seward wanting some bears killed before that grizzly sow got shot. Now there are some enraged about the shooting and scrambling to find a new home for the cubs, which – in the natural scheme of things – were destined from birth to die early deaths with or without mom.
In Denali National Park and Preserve, where grizzly bears have long been studied, 65 percent of cubs die before making it through their first year of life. More than half of grizzly mothers – 54 percent – lose their whole litter in the first year.
Statistically, one of the two little Seward grizzlies was a dead-cub walking even if its momma had survived, but that doesn’t make the sow’s death and the fate of the cubs any easier for people to stomach.
And that is why the simple discussion of “Bears – What Can We Do?” gets so complicated in Alaska.