The SARS-CoV-2 virus might have upended the world, but in Alaska’s largest city, some things haven’t changed.
Summer is back and along with it the bears. They are seemingly everywhere, though they are not as wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game point out.
Social media in the form of Facebook, Nextdoor, Instagram and more coupled to smartphones and remote-sensing cameras have in part exposed the city’s bears the way a microscope reveals the unseen microbes of a world invisible to the naked eye.
Not that long ago, people were limited to cell phones that only allowed them to call a few friends to report a bear in the neighborhood. But now almost everyone has a phone with a built-in camera that allows them to take a picture of the bear and transmit the photo almost instantaneously into the tubes.
Connectivity has driven a Facebook page titled simply Anchorage Bear Trackers from almost nothing to more than 13,000 members in two years. The members-only page is actively non-partisan, recognizing that as with everything in the United States these days there are lovers, and there are haters.
Or maybe haters is too strong of a word. Suffice to say there are those with concerns about the inherent dangers of bears mixing with people in the city’s suburbs.
Two years ago, 44-year-old Alaskan Michael Soltis went for a walk in a neighborhood high in the Chugach Mountains above the bedroom community of Eagle River just north of the city proper. He was attacked by a grizzly bear sow and killed.
A month later, the state revealed to neighbors who’d been left in the dark after the mauling that it was a predatory attack. The bear had killed and partially eaten Soltis, then buried his remains for later consumption.
Fifty-one-year-old Paul Vasquez, one of many people who went searching for Soltis along Hiland Road after he went missing, was attacked by the bear only 10 to 20 yards from that food cache. He was lucky to have friends nearby who were able to drive off the bear.
The death of Soltis came a year after a black bear killed 16-year-old Patrick Cooper as he descended the popular Bird Ridge Trail in Chugach State Park about 25 miles southeast of the city along the heavily traveled Seward Highway.
Just before his death, he called his brother to say he was being followed by the bear. Anchorage Assemblyman John Weddleton and others happened to be nearby when the bear attacked in thick brush. They witnessed the horrible sounds of the attack unable to do anything because they were unarmed.
Nothing came of it as nothing has come of similar meetings in Anchorage for years now. Anchorage residents love their bears as much as they fear their bears which makes it difficult to settle on a formal policy for how to manage the animals.
The only major change has been a growing sense of bear awareness among Anchorage residents. Where it used to be uncommon to see people walking around edge-of-the-city neighborhoods carrying bear spray for repelling aggressive animals, it is now common to see people packing the deterrent.
And Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologists now sometime take action when situations arise that look overtly dangerous.
State wildlife officials in July 2017 killed a sow grizzly that had been roaming an area near the city’s Service High School with two cubs in tow. Grizzly sows are famously protective of their cubs.
The late Sen. Chris Birch lobbied the agency hard to take action. He had a personal interest. His daughter and grandchildren – ages seven and two – lived in one of the neighborhoods the bears had been frequenting.
“It was just a terrible situation,” Birch said at the time. “Everybody looks on (the bears) as big cuddly teddy bears,” but a grizzly could kill a child by accident with a swat of a paw thinking it was just knocking a human away from its cub.
The sow’s cubs went to the Alaska Zoo. There is now a similar sow with two yearling cubs hunting moose calves near the Goldenview Middle School in south Anchorage.
She is reported to have charged several people, but so far no one has been injured. In fact, despite reports of bears all over Anchorage at the moment, no one has so far been injured by one.
So far. It is now rare for Anchorage to get through a summer without a bear mauling.
Too many bears?
Some believe the city now has too many bears, but there’s no substantive evidence there are any more bears now than there have been since a once depressed population fully recovered 20 or 30 years ago.
Before that, bears – along with moose and Dall sheep – were heavily hunted in the nearly million acres of wilderness adjacent to the city. About a half-million-acres of that land is now within the Chugach State Park and hunting throughout the area is managed more conservatively than was once the case.
That is even more true within the city itself. Archers once hunted moose in the city’s popular Kincaid State Park. That no longer happens. As a result, the park has more moose, and moose calves are potential food highly attractive to bears.
“Stay away from Kincaid beach!” a poster on the Bear Tracker wrote Sunday. “Just walked down with kids and had (a) bear encounter. There is a fresh, newborn moose kill on the very last stretch of alders/thick brush just before walking down the steep bluff to the actual beach. Smelled the kill on the way down. But on way back up we heard something go crashing through the brush and walked right up on the remaining hips and legs of a calf. Luckily the bear took off instead of guarding its kill that it had drug onto the trail while we were on the beach.”
The carcass was later removed by Fish and Game biologists worried about public safety.
A grizzly bear, meanwhile, has been reported regularly foraging on the Turnagain Arm wetlands adjacent to the park. Exactly how many bears there are in the area is unknown.
Bears are notoriously hard to census. They cover large ranges that regularly overlap, population numbers vary annually, and with the exception of salmon streams, bear use of areas within their range can vary considerably year to year.
That the animals are all over Anchorage has been known since 2012 when Fish and Game biologists put GPS radio-tracking collars on six black bears and three grizzlies. The data showed them ranging most of the city, and these were but nine of the estimated 300 black bears and 50 grizzlies believed to inhabit a sprawling municipality that includes a wild, half-million-acre state park and hundreds of thousands of additional acres of undeveloped public land.
The bears might be undercounted, admitted agency spokesman Rick Green, but then again they might be overcounted. It’s hard to tell.
Bears are very visible when they are visible, and almost invisible when they are not. It takes amazingly little cover to hide a bear. As a result, Anchorage bear sightings tend to decline in direct proportion to the greening of the city.
The taller the grass, the leafier the alder and willow brush, the thicker the growth of birch trees, the fewer the sighting of bears although they sometimes still remain hard to miss.
When a black bear apparently looking for bird feeders – a favorite urban food source – climbs up onto the second-story deck of your neighbor’s house in aptly-named Bear Valley and then goes for a walkabout on the roof, it’s hard to ignore, and it’s the same when a grizzly bear saunters out in front of your car on an Eagle River Road.