With the shooting of a young grizzly bear in Anchorage this week, the bear wars in Alaska’s largest city begin again in what has become an annual, seasonal struggle that has left both people and bears dead and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrestling with an unsolvable problem.
Bears – especially grizzly bears – are potentially dangerous animals. A year ago come June, 44-year-old Michael Soltis went for a hike near his home in the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River and never came back.
Searchers who went looking for him were charged by a grizzly, and one of them was injured. Soltis’s body was subsequently found buried in a bear cache. Soltis left behind a fiance and an unborn child.
State wildlife officials spent weeks hemming and hawing over the circumstances surrounding the experienced outdoorsman’s death before finally admitting what had been obvious from the start to those intimately familiar with bears.
Soltis had become the victim of a rare, predatory grizzly bear.
Almost overnight a city comfortable with Living With Bears, even if occasionally someone got mauled, became a whole lot less comfortable with the Big Wild Life its visitor’s bureau once promoted to sell Alaska’s largest city as the ideal combination of the urban and the wild.
Anchorage has always had bears and bear issues, but prior to Earth Day in 1970, the issues were resolved quickly on the outskirts of a frontier community of 48,000.
If a bear was seen, it was killed. That was the solution all across Alaska at the time. It had been that way for a long, long time. Alaskans had little tolerance for bears not just because of the danger but because of the damage they can do to property and food stores in their constant search for food.
“Brown bears serve no good purpose,” the Juneau Alaska Empire editorialized in 1929. “They are essentially killers – the bear ought to be exterminated – and the extermination ought to begin at once.”
Protected areas for bears were created in Alaska wild areas in that time period, largely to satisfy the desire of trophy hunters from the Lower 48 states, but around towns, villages and cities, the animals were treated differently.
“Of all Alaska’s wildlife, brown-grizzly bears are probably least compatible with human activities. Without special consideration, their numbers will be markedly reduced wherever substantial and sustained human occupation and confrontation occur. Even with protection, a certain amount of conflict and consequent attrition of bears can be expected. The whole history of the species on this continent since the advent of the explorers has followed this pattern, and today grizzly bears have disappeared from most of their former range in the contiguous United States and Central America.”
Attitudes were starting to change by 1973, however. Fledgling efforts were underway to restore both grizzly and wolf populations in the West, and in a nation imbued with a new environmental awareness, the attitude toward predators in general was shifting from “all bad” to “all good.”
A then rapidly growing state with a highly fluid population constantly coming and going, Alaska changed with the nation. To protect bears, hunting seasons in the Anchorage area were restricted or closed, and the idea that if you saw a bear, the thing to do was kill it faded away.
“…The future of the bear lies in the reassessment of human values to include reasonable coexistence with it,” the 1973 state Fish and Game report concluded. “Bears are not constant competitors and the major conflicts usually have resulted from improper land planning and classification, marginal economic pursuits, and a basic misunderstanding of bears and their behavior.”
Bear management reflected the newly enlightened attitude and what had been a depressed bear population in the Chugach Mountains adjacent to the state’s largest city began to recover.
As it did, bears became an occasional problem. Between 1981 and 1995, according to Fish and Game data, an average of one grizzly and three black bears were killed within the Municipality of Anchorage in defense of life and property (DLP).
“DLP” kills, as Alaskans call them, are common in the state. It is legal for anyone to shoot a bear at any time to legitimately defend herself or himself, or property. And the Anchorage municipality is a vast area 750 square miles bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
Most of it remains wilderness. The nearly half-million-acre Chugach State Park begins at the edge of the city. It abuts the Chugach National Forest to the east and the largely undeveloped Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) to the west.
No one knows exactly how many bears inhabit the area. Animals with large home ranges constantly on the move in the search for food, bears are notoriously hard to census. But the best guess of state wildlife biologists is that the area is home to 65-75 grizzlies, though past estimates have gone as high as 262, and several hundred or more black bears.
Bears populations weren’t the only things changing at the head of Cook Inlet as the 1970s began, either. Oil had been discovered on Alaska’s North Slope and in 1975 construction began on an 800-mile pipeline across the state to tidewater at the Port of Valdez.
Pipeline construction started an Anchorage boom that never really ended. The city grew steadily to the nearly 300,000 of today and spurred development to the north in the bedroom communities of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, now considered part of an Anchorage metropolitan area numbering more than 400,000.
Approximately four out of every seven Alaskans now call this sprawling urban area home. A growing human population and a healthy bear population were destined to spell conflicts.
“Due to the increasing number of outdoor recreationists and residential neighborhoods in prime bear habitat, as well as a healthy population of brown bears, human–bear encounters and conflicts are high and have increased in recent years,” state officials were noting by 2010. “In the past two decades, 10 people have been injured and two
killed by brown bears in (Game Management) Unit 14C (surrounding Anchorage.)
“There are no documented maulings before the late 1980s, and the number of people injured in the last decade – seven – is similar to the number of people injured or killed in the previous decade, six. During the last decade (2000 to 2009), 25 brown bears have been reported killed in Unit 14C in defense of life or property or by authorities because they constituted an immediate threat to public safety.”
The kill rate averaging two and a half grizzlies per year was more than double that of the 1980s, and it has only crept upward in this decade.
A record number of 40 bears were killed by state officials or died in DLP shootings in Anchorage last year. Fourteen of those were grizzlies, according to Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh reported; the other 27 were black bears.
An endangered species in most of the rest of the country, grizzlies are the neighbors of Anchorage residents. When state biologists studying the movement of bears at JBER put satellite collars on half a dozen black and bears and three grizzlies earlier in the decade, they found them running all over Anchorage.
The tracking data made it clear you could run into bear almost anywhere in the city – the Anchorage Police Department has had to escort them out of downtown – and the odds are good that you will, sooner or later, meet a bear if spend time on the city’s Hillside; in Far North Bicentennial Park which stretches down from the Hillside to the edge of Midtown; on JBER, or in Eagle River.
Multiple maulings have taken place in the latter three areas, and bears are regular visitors to in the yards of Hillside residents. Usually, they pass through and are gone, but sometimes there are problems when they hang around because they have been baited by the availability of bird seed, dog food, garbage or the trendiest of bear attractants, the urban chicken coop.
Few of these bears become problems, but some do. They invariably – as was the case with the young bear earlier this week – end up shot. Marsh said the decision to shoot that bear came after it charged the car of a driver who slowed to film it along a Hillside Road.
It’s death started the annual kill count.
Bear-kill numbers have yo-yoed up and down in recent years, but the five-year average, counting 2018, stands at 23 dead bears per year, about six times the number in the 1990s and higher than the previous one-time record in 2000. The annual kills have covered a wide range from a low of nine bears in 2016 to the 42 last year, but in three of the last five years 22 or more bears have been killed.
Marsh described the latest dead grizzly as an “aggressive juvenile.” Two- to three-year-old bears newly on their own often act that way. The aggression is an act designed to scare people away.
People experienced with bears can almost always get those animals to back down but there is no telling what might happen if someone, particularly a child, was to run from such a bear.
It was the danger of the latter, Marsh said, that made state wildlife biologists decide to execute the bear. On social media, the decision was applauded by people in the neighborhood surrounding the sight of the shooting, although there remain those in Anchorage upset at the idea any bears are killed.
“I’ve often commented that bears are far more tolerant of people than we are of them, and state statistics for 2017 again demonstrate that to be true.
“While a rogue black bear killed teenager Patrick ‘Jack’ Cooper following an early summer mountain race on Bird Ridge – a gruesome and tragic death, for sure – humans in turn have killed nearly three dozen bears for ‘public safety’ reasons….”
Sherwonit blamed dead bears on everything from humans with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later attitude to garbage attracting animals into neighborhoods to “social media” heightening fears of an over-abundance of bears. He offered no advice on how to deal with the very real public safety issues.
Humans can generally be taught to deal with bears – if they are willing to learn – but children, as Marsh noted, are another matter. And as the death of Soltis showed, not even adults are immune to the risks.
Friends said Soltis regularly defended bears as far less of a danger than most people fear, but they are a danger.
“Mike loved bears, too,” friend Mike Conner told a KTUU reporter who attended a fund-raiser for Soltis’s fiance and unborn child last July. “But at the end of the day, we need proper day management instead of it turning into a bear sanctuary, and that is exactly what I believe is taking place.”
The difficult job for state wildlife managers rests in determining which bears reported to authorities by Anchorage residents are really dangerous and need to be killed, and which bears just happen to be bears wandering into and out of the state’s largest city in search of prime foods such as salmon in the summer and moose calves in the several weeks ahead.