Just as Anchorage recreationists were starting to think it safe to go back into the woods, the grizzly bears showed up to dine along the city’s eastern edge.
Not one, but two different grizzlies were this week reported to be guarding moose kills nearly within spitting distance of Anchorage residential areas.
One of the bears charged some people near the city’s Abbott Loop Park, and both were lighting up Facebook. One of the exchanges on the popular Anchorage Bear Tracker page went like this:
“What kind of bear?”
“The kind that can kill you.”
“Cute. Brown or black?”
“No idea. I’m terrified of all of them. Lol.”
Both were Alaska brown bears, or what the rest of the world calls grizzlies and what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game classifies as a “brown/grizzly.”
The simple brown versus black labeling sometimes even causes problems in the Anchorage area which is home to a few “cinnamon-colored black bears,” which look pretty brown to most people.
Telling the difference between a black bear – pointy nose and short claws as seen above – and a grizzly – square head, long claws, humped back – can be a matter of life and death.
Black bears do not normally defend moose kills, no matter whether they managed to take the moose down themselves or found one hit by a motor vehicle that stumbled off into the forest to die.
Grizzlies, on the other hand, are notorious for defending kill sites. The most famous bear attack in Anchorage history involved a moose-killed bear.
Marcie Trent, a locally famous runner, son Larry Waldron and Trent’s grandson, Art Abel, were hiking the popular McHugh Creek Trail about 15 miles east of the city center in July 1995 when they stumbled upon the carcass of a moose that had been killed by a grizzly.
The grizzly was still there and attacked.
It killed the 77-year-old Trent and Waldron, 45. Abel fled and survived. Alaska wildlife officials subsequently went on a hunt for the bear, but it was never found.
Several people have been killed by bears in the Anchorage area since and many more have been injured. Authorities on bears agree grizzlies on kills or with cubs are the most dangerous bears.
The advice on bear kill sites – should someone stumble onto one – is to get away from the area as quickly as possible. Kill sites are readily identifiable to those who have any idea of what they look like.
Grizzlies regularly rip up a lot of brush and dirt to cover a moose carcass to protect it from other predatory scavengers ranging from wolves to magpies. Scavenging birds trying to grab a free meal are, in fact, often a good sign of a nearby kill.
A young Ohio hunter on the moose hunting trip of a lifetime to Alaska was killed earlier this year by a grizzly bear guarding a moose carcass in Central Alaska.
Pfeiffer and an unidentified hunting companion had killed the moose late in the day on Sept. 19. They dressed it out, and with nightfall approaching returned to their camp nearby.
Overnight a grizzly found the carcass of the animal and claimed the kill as its own. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve rangers who investigated the attack found sign of the bear’s effort to cache the moose, but could not tell exactly what happened.
“We do not know when that occurred, before or after the attack,” a park service spokeswoman said at the time. “If before, we don’t know whether it would have been significant enough for the hunters to notice.”
The two hunters had begun butchering the moose before the bear encounter. Pfeiffer’s partner had left for camp with a load of meat prior to the attack. Pfeiffer was to load more meat into game bags while his partner was gone.
When Pfeiffer’s partner returned to the kill site to pick up another load of meat, he was charged by the bear but drove it off with gunfire. He subsequently found Pfeiffer dead.
The upside of living close to big, dangerous, charismatic megafauna in Alaska is that life so close to the primitive wild is something few in the world get to experience. The downside is that the animals can sometimes cost someone their life.
The good and the bad has in recent years sparked considerable debate as to how many bears in Anchorage are too many bears. Prior to the 1980s, the local bear population was depressed due to overhunting.
Many at the time argued for more protection for bears. The population of both grizzly and black bears appears to have recovered nicely since hunting was restricted.
Many Anchorage cyclists, runners, hikers and dog walkers now relish the days of winter when the bears are in hibernation, and people can venture into the surrounding forest without the need to be constantly on the alert.
But it is clear those days have yet to arrive in 2020.