A year on from a record kill of problems bears in Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage bear “problem” appears to have all but evaporated.
As the bruins head for hibernation, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports a death toll for the snow-free season of but two grizzly bears and four black bears – about a seventh of the 40 bears of both species killed last year.
It is the lowest kill since seven dead bears in 2013 in the sprawling, 1,700-square-mile of municipality dominated by the half-million-acre Chugach State Park and surrounding federal lands home to an estimated 250 to 350 black bears and 55 to 65 grizzlies.
Nowhere in North America is there a major city with the number of bears roaming its subdivisions and outskirts as here.
And though the bears haven’t all gone to their dens for the winter yet despite newly fallings snows, it appears that for the first time in the last three years Anchorage is going to get through the year without a fatality after two straight summers of deadly bear attacks.
A predatory sow grizzly and her cubs claimed the life of hiker Mike Soltis, 44, in the suburb of Eagle River at the start of the 2018 summer, and a predatory black bear killed 16-year-old Patrick “Jack” Cooper in 2017 as he descended Bird Ridge south of the city after a June mountain run.
Fish and Game spokesman Rick Green, a controversial state hire who advocated for shooting more bears in the name of public safety while a local talk-show host, said the agency for which he now works was happy to see a summer with so few bear problems after a year in which a concerned Anchorage assemblyman hosted a meeting to ask “Bears! What Can We Do?”
Why the peace?
Green couldn’t, however, explain what caused the change.
The state’s Southcentral region enjoyed a record warm summer that brought an early green-up and a phenomenal June growth of vegetation. Gardener Dale Marshall credited the warm weather for the 2,051-pound pumpkin he weighed in at the Alaska State Fair.
It topped the old record, also set by Marshall, by 600 pounds.
Bears are omnivores, and Green admitted that access to greater quantities of wild foods might help keep them away from chicken coops and out of homeowners’ garbage, bird feeders and dog food, thus keeping the bears out of conflicts with humans.
Most of the bears killed last year became problems after they moved into edge-of-the-city neighborhoods in search of food. Too often they were encouraged to stay after getting into improperly or inadequately secured food that is garbage to humans and a goldmine to hungry bears, or finding a chicken coop irresistible.
Bears hanging around neighborhoods looking for food appeared less of a problem this year than last.
But the record kill last year and the 34 bears killed in 2017 might also have had something to do with the low kill this year. Kills by state or local officials, or by homeowners in defense of life and property (DLP), tend to remove from the bear population the animals with the least fear of humans.
Green noted that years with big kills tend to be followed by years with smaller kills, and that might have something to do with both reducing the size of the bear population and taking out the least wary of the bears.
Only nine bears were killed in Anchorage in 2016 before numbers started ticking up toward last year’s record kill, Green said, and that seems to represent something of a statistical pattern:
A significant number of bears are killed. The population is reduced. The number of kills drops. And then the bear population begins to increase and shootings start creeping upward again.
Thus this year’s low kill shouldn’t be taken to mean much more than that for one summer humans and bears both got relatively lucky.