Wolverines and lynx and bears, oh my!
Social media in Alaska’s largest city is alive with reports of all three. Dorothy, the Tinman and Scarecrow would be positively petrified.
The local newspaper even ran a story about a wolverine slobbering all over a woman’s cat. Wildlife biologists admit they are little skeptical about the tale of a cat winning a reported “brawl” with a wolverine and ending up with no injuries sans that slobber.
But the wolverine story generated such a storm the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was moved to issue a “Wolverine Advisory.” The story about the advisory was today the Anchorage Daily News’ “best read” story.
So much for those impeachment hearings.
The state’s wolverine advisory pointed out that wolverines – cousins of the honey badger – have never been known to attack people. Both animals do, however, have a reputation for their ferocity and their gluttony, which could make chickens attractive.
And Anchorage has chickens. The state’s largest city years ago joined the backyard chicken boom despite some Alaska problems.
“Ground Predators: Bears, Wolverines, Lynx,” warned Ashley Taborsky at the website Backyard Poultry in August. “Just like many chicken keepers sadly lose flocks each year to bald eagles and other predators in the sky, there’s certainly no shortage of ground predators in Alaska, either.”
In the Alaska fall with the berry crop fading, the salmon runs over, the salmon carcass scavenging pretty well finished and the lynx population near a high as the snowshoe hare cycles appears to be starting to fade, it wouldn’t be surprising if those “ground predators” went looking for a few chicken coops particularly in or around Anchorage’s parks and greenbelts, which still provide good habitat for wildlife of all types.
But wait, there’s more.
Technology’s cursed blessing
Technology is our friend – when it works – and when it doesn’t help us scare ourselves to death.
As in the rest of America, motion-activated security cameras are proliferating in Anchorage, area wildlife biologist Dave Battle noted today. Wired.com highlighted this phenomenon in a September story titled “The Ringification of Suburban Life.”
“Consumer surveillance cameras are everywhere now, and they’re capturing moments we otherwise would never have known happened,” the website reported.
In Alaska, a lot of those otherwise unknown moments involve charismatic megafauna, including bears, lynx, wolverines, coyotes, foxes and even the rare wolf.
“There have been a few reports where the person actually saw an animal with their own eyes, but many are reports from Ring videos,” Battle emailed. “It wasn’t long ago that nobody had motion-activated cameras on their house, so if a bear or wolverine or lynx came cruising through their backyard at 2 a.m, they’d never know.”
Now, they know. That Big Wild Life once promoted by the municipality is all around. And once they know, of course, they want to let their friends, family and the whole neighborhood know via Nextdoor or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
“Before social media became as prevalent, people would call us to report something, and they may tell their immediate friends and family, but the whole city didn’t know about it,” Battle said.
Now, the reports ripple across the city, the state, the nation, the continent and the world, and the once unseen-ordinary becomes a newly known surprise.
“Wonder why so close to town? Seems like more sightings recently,” state Rep. Geran Tarr posted on Facebook Tuesday beneath a photo of a black bear on the Chester Creek bike trail although it was unclear whether she was commenting on the bear or a lynx another poster had also reported seeing there.
No matter which animal, the town has always been their town. The animals have always been among us.
The Ship, Chester, Campbell, Rabbit and Potter creek greenbelts, which connect the half-million-acre wilderness of Chugach State Park to the tidelands of Turnagain Arm are both wildlife habitat and wildlife travel corridors.
State wildlife biologists at the start of the decade put radio-collars on both black and grizzly bears and documented their movements all over Anchorage. They showed up pretty much anywhere they could find nearby habitat in which to hide.
Lynx, wolverine, coyote and red fox movements are unlikely to be much different from those of bears. All of these predators are far more adaptable than most people think. Bobcats, a cousin of the lynx, manage to survive quite nicely among the more than 7 million people living in the Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW) metroplex, studies have shown.
“…Our study revealed bobcats in an urban landscape are selecting landscape features similar to bobcats in more natural areas. A population of bobcats in the heart of a dense major metropolitan area, such as DFW, provides optimistic possibilities for the potential of bobcats and other carnivores to thrive in an urban landscape with minimal conflict,” scientists studying those animals in the journal Animals earlier this year. “Citizens recreating or living near areas associated with high probability of bobcat occurrence can be informed accordingly to enhance current preventative methods in minimizing perceived but often unsubstantiated fears about urban bobcats.”
The same could be said of lynx, wolverines, coyotes and foxes in Anchorage. None threaten humans but some do rise “unsubstantiated fears.”
Bears are a more difficult issue. They can and have injured and killed people in the Anchorage area in recent years. Bears killed one Anchorage-area resident in 2017 and another in 2018. There have been no fatalities this year.
After the 2018 death in Eagle River, an Anchorage suburb, state wildlife biologists aggressively pursued area bears that showed a lack of fear of humans. The result was a record kill of 40 black and grizzly bears.
The kill this year dropped to a fraction of that. Why is unknown, but there are a variety of possible explanations:
- The size of the bear population was reduced enough to significantly lower the odds of random bear-human encounters.
- The least wary bears were killed, leaving the population weighted toward bears that fear humans and do everything possible to avoid them.
- A record warm summer that boosted the early-season growth of grasses eaten by bears and fueled a boom in berries later could have provided so much wild food fewer bears ventured into the city looking for garbage, bird seed, or dog food – all popular bear attractants.
All most likely played some role.
Most of the bears have now headed for their dens with the availability of food in decline, but some are still out. Bear hibernation has a strong link to body temperature, which is driven by both temperatures and food availability.
“Bear activity in November is not unheard of,” Battle said. “It’s pretty common for a few bears, especially brown (grizzly) bears, to still be out.”
Some have been reported in garbage on the Anchorage Hillside. Humans can help encourage them to hibernate by keeping them out of human food sources – primarily the aforementioned garbage, dog food and birdseed, according to wildlife officials.