Snow was falling on Anchorage on Monday, and the last couple black bears still roaming the urban edge of the nearly 2,000-square-mile municipality were thought be headed at last to dens where they should remain out of contact with humans for months.
So ended another “bear season” – as some residents of Alaska’s urban underbelly now call the warmer months – with one human dead and a record number of bears shot and killed.
Forty-four-year-old Michael Stoltis went for a hike in his South Fork Eagle River neighborhood on the northern edge of the city in late June and never returned. He was later discovered to have been killed by a predatory grizzly sow.
He was the second Anchorage resident to die that way in the past two years. Sixteen-year-old Patrick Cooper was killed by a predatory black bear east of the city while descending a popular trail after an organized mountain run in 2017.
The deaths heightened concerns about bears and might have contributed to the record 41 of the animals killed this year by state and local officials or residents defending themselves. Tensions ran high after Stoltis’s body was found and one of a group of people searching for him was attacked by a bear that had buried his remains as if planning to later feed on them.
In the wake of that incident, Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees shot and killed a grizzly sow and two cubs spotted in the area. Genetic evidence cleared them of killing Stoltis, but the state agency says it now has the genetic fingerprint of the guilty bear and plans to kill her and her cubs if they are ever found.
The death of Stoltis coupled with bears popping up all over town put bear-human interactions in the spotlight all summer long.
Anchorage has been here before.
At the time, the Anchorage Daily News’ Megan Holland reported that with 17 bears dead Anchorage looked on its way to top an old record of 21 kills in a summer. Then area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott told her it might be a sign of people being “a little trigger happy…after the mauling of a 15-year-old cyclist in June in Far North Bicentennial Park.”
One other thing was clear:
Anchorage black and grizzly bear populations hunted to very low numbers in the 1960s and 1970s when hunters swarmed the foothills above what was an isolated community of 100,000 had recovered as Anchorage was swelling to become the fifth largest urban area north of 61 degrees latitude.
“In the early 1990s, an average of three black bears and one brown bear were shot a year. Then the numbers started climbing,” Holland reported. “In 2000, a record 21 bears died — 16 of those were shot — and vehicles ran into three adult bears and two cubs.”
Numbers have yo-yoed up and down since, but the five-year average, counting 2018, of 23 dead bears is about six times what it was in the 1990s and higher than the one-time record in 2000. The annual kills have covered a wide range from a low of nine bears in 2016 to the 41 this year, but in three of the last five years 22 or more bears have been killed.
Of the those killed in 2018, Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh reported, 14 were grizzlies, an endangered species in other parts of the country. The other 27 were black bears.
Grizzlies remain plentiful in Alaska as do black bears, which are now common in significant parts of the Lower 48 as well. The number of grizzlies shot this year is, however, unprecedented. Only three of the 34 bears killed last year were grizzlies.
The 2018 grizzly kill was twice the 2012 record of seven, but that is not necessarily a bad thing from a wildlife standpoint. The large number might simply be indicative of a sizable population of bears in an area still dominated by wild lands.
A state-sized municipality
“For context, it’s important to note that the municipality is a large area encompassing roughly 1,960 square miles spanning from the south bank of the Knik River to Anchorage, including the communities of Eklutna, Chugiak, Eagle River, and southeast to Portage, including the communities of Indian, Bird Creek and Girdwood,” Marsh said.
The Municipality of Anchorage is about 60 percent bigger than the 1,212-square-mile state of Rhode Island, and it includes the nearly half-million-acre Chugach State Park, a largely wilderness area that abuts the Chugach National Forest and little-developed Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson.
Those areas are something of a refugia for bears and appear to be at their ecological carrying capacity. For bears, this sometimes results in pressure for some of them to expand their range into the urban area.
But the city also has plenty of bear attractants – some natural, some manmade – that add to problems. Bears smelling what is garbage to humans but food to scavengers are drawn to the city throughout the snow-free part of the year.
Bird seed has the same effect; bears quickly learn to target the energy rich food in bird feeders and some people refuse to take them down in the summer despite the pleadings of neighbors and state wildlife biologists.
Natural attractions also abound.
In the summer, bears come looking for salmon in Anchorage creeks, some of which have seen salmon numbers boosted thanks to hatchery programs. And in the spring, the city boasts abundant moose calves, a prime prey for bears of both species.
Further complicating the picture are indications pregnant moose may migrate into the city in May and June seeking the protection of people when giving birth. Scientists studying moose in Central Alaska in the 1980s found cows in the White Mountains National Recreation Area migrating 40 to 60 miles south to Fairbanks to bear their young away from the teeth and fangs of predators.
Joel Berger, a scientist working in Yellowstone National Park, later documented the phenomenon there as well. “These findings offer rigorous support that mammals use humans to shield against carnivores,” he wrote in a peer-reviewed study in Biology Letters.
Scientists studying moose in the Alaska Panhandle in 2016 reported big advantages for the animals migrating to areas predators might be inclined to avoid.
“Calf survival was 2.6-2.9 times higher for individuals that migrated than those that did not,” they wrote in a peer-review study published in Ecology. “Our results support the predation-risk avoidance hypotheses, and suggest that migration is a behavioral strategy that principally operates to reduce the risk of calf predation.”
Stoltis was hiking at a time when grizzlies would have been still looking for moose calves. He was not carrying a weapon for bear defense.
Many in the muni now do. In terms of personal bear safety, Anchorage has changed radically in that regard over the past decade.
It is now common to see people in almost any wooded area of the city carrying pepper spray designed to ward off curious or attacking bears. Costco sells it by the pallet load in the spring.
It is clear one of the responses to the bear problem of a decade ago has been adaptation to the new risk. Anchorage residents have become much more bear aware.
Still, bears in the city remain a much-debated topic.
There are bear lovers sure to be appalled to learn that 41 were killed this year just as there will be bear haters wishing the count had been higher.