Despite government officials and residents of Alaska’s largest city quietly racking up more than two dozen bear kills this year, there were still a few bruins out roaming snow-covered Anchorage as Thanksgiving approached.
Most notable were a pair of grizzlies ranging the residential neighborhoods in the southern part of the city of 285,000. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Dave Battle this week expressed the suspicion their dilly-dallying on the way to hibernation might have something to do with the easy availability of post-Halloween human treats.
“I don’t believe it has as much to do with the weather as it does the fact they’re still getting a lot of trash and birdseed,” Battle emailed.
The weather in Anchorage warmed up on Friday, but for most of the previous week, it had been frigidly old-fashioned, according to National Weather Service data. The temperatures for the week were two to 12 degrees below normal, and the wind-driven snow that usually sends lingering grizzlies toward their dens in the Chugach Mountains this time of year had blown in.
And yet, a resident of the Paradise Valley subdivision 1,000 feet above the southern edge of the city reported fresh grizzly tracks outside his house Saturday morning.
The fresh bear sign was not particularly welcome. Anchorage residents have learned to live with grizzlies in their midst, but some have come to long for the peace of winter when they can leave the bear spray at home and relax their situational awareness.
Bear-repelling pepper spray has become a common accessory carried by many on walks in their neighborhoods in parts of the city in this decade. And it is probably worth noting here at this time that researchers in the Lower 48 have found that the spray appears to work quite well down to at least 10 degrees below zero, a temperature uncommon in Anchorage in November.
The city rarely sees such temperatures as the record average low for the month reflects. It stands at 9.4 degrees and dates back to November 1955, according to the National Weather Service.
There were not a lot of bears roaming the city in 1955. In part because the then 50,000 or so residents occupied far less bear habitat, and in part because the surrounding countryside was heavily hunted.
Urbanization and shifting attitudes toward predators has changed the city immensely.
Some are now offended that any bears are killed, though the animals can at times pose dangerous and deadly threats to humans. Dozens of people have been injured by the bears in Anchorage over the years, and two people have been killed in the last three years.
Forty-four-year-old Michael Soltis went for a hike near his home in Eagle River on the northern edge of the city in June 2018 and was never seen alive again. He was attacked by a grizzly sow with cubs which appear to have viewed him as prey.
A year earlier, a similar sad fate befell 16-year-old Patrick ‘Jack’ Cooper near the small, roadside outpost of Bird just east of the city. Cooper had been descending a popular Chugach State Park hiking trail after a mountain-running race when he was attacked and killed by a black bear.
Only six bears – two grizzlies and four black bears – were killed last year.
The lull didn’t last long, however. Fish and Game area wildlife supervisor Cynthia Wardlow this week reported 25 bears dead this year – five grizzlies and 20 black bears, a number near average for the decade.
And there is the possibility those numbers could grow if the grizzlies still out don’t head for their dens soon.
That Anchorage bears have managed to sustain a relatively high kill rate – what would be called a “harvest rate” in a sport hunting situation – is a good sign that the bear population in and around the city is large and healthy.
That bears get into trouble in Anchorage eventually to be shot is a sign of continuing problems with bear-human interactions.
Referencing a “problem behavior continuum,” Battle said, the two grizzlies now seen with some regularity in the Oceanview, Southpark Bluff and Rabbit Creek neighborhoods “are probably the same two bears that we heard of off and on since spring, and saw a gradual progression of behavior.
“They were initially seen every so often down off the bluff (on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge) feeding on natural foods – bird eggs, vegetation, moose calves, etc. Throughout the summer, we occasionally got reports of them being seen, usually in the middle of the night, in the yards of people that live on the edge of the bluff or the edge of parks, mostly on Ring cameras and the like.
“We did not start receiving reports of them feeding on trash until late fall/early winter. Now trash and birdseed are firmly on their menu, and we have to kill them if we can catch up to them.
“In between looking for the bears, we’re working with the (Alaska State) Troopers and Muni Code Enforcement to try to get citations issued to the people who are being negligent with their trash and birdfeeders, but it’s a time-consuming process.
“I saw the sow early Thursday morning (around 2:30 AM) on Oceanview, but she immediately reacted to the moving vehicle from 80-100 yards away, hightailing it into the woods. When they’re this skittish and cagey, it sometimes takes a while to catch up to them.”
Like a lot of other Anchorage bears, this one seems to have learned how to live with humans and survive. That usually works right up until the point a bear gets a little too comfortable with life with humans.
Battle suspects that most of the bears killed in Anchorage have been living in the city for a time after moving in from the surrounding wilderness. The Chugach Park abutting the city is a half-million acres of wildland which adjoins the largely undeveloped Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), covering about 80,000 acres to the west, and the wild Chugach National Forest to the west.
“If I had to guess,” Battle said, “more of the bears that are defense of life and property killed or killed by agencies have been living here a while. It takes time for a bear to develop the behaviors that usually get them killed.
“They’ll start out smelling interesting odors from houses, then after a while, they get close enough in the middle of the night to grab some trash or birdseed.
“After they do that for a while they expand their hours and get more brazen because nothing has happened to them so far. Eventually, they’re coming at any time of day because humans seem to be harmless and they provide an endless, high calorie, high protein, high fat, food supply.
“It’s usually the bears that are pretty far along this continuum that at some point cross a line and either an agency or a citizen kills them. When they die, it creates a void to be filled by bears that disperse from surrounding areas like JBER, Chugach State Park, etc.”
The ultimate result of all this is that bear management in Anchorage is a never-ending process. Wildlife officials agree that if city residents were more responsible with their garbage, birdseed and dog food, and if they’d take the precaution of surrounding their urban and suburban chicken coops with electric fences, there would likely be fewer bear problems and fewer dead bears.
But given the wildlife reservoir on the edge of the city, it appears inevitable there will always be bears moving in and out of the city, and some of them will always get in trouble and be killed, only to be replaced by new bears dispersing from the surrounding wildlands.
And the best news might be that no Anchorage residents were killed or seriously injured by bears this year although a resident of Sunrise, an old mining community just across Turnagain Arm from the city, died as the result of a bear attack.