Commentary

Californaska

A healthy Anchorage black bear/Craig Medred photo

With bears trying to den under decks in the city jokingly referred to as “Los Anchorage” and many residents there upset at the elimination of said bears, it would appear the Californication of Alaska’s largest city might be nearing completion if it is not already complete.

Gone are the days when most would prefer to have bear for dinner than have the bears over for dinner to frolic in the yard and provide the evening’s entertainment.

Thus the decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to “euthanize” a family of bears that tried to den under a deck in an eastern city neighborhood abutting hundreds of thousands of acres of wild land did not go over well with everyone.

Since the executions late last week, social media has been blowing up with complaints and criticism that the state agency “has to do better.”

What defines “better” is, however, unclear.

California’s ursine-friendly decision to try to cohabit with bears has been going on for so long now that bears in the house have become almost normal in parts of that state, and while the bears might enjoy rummaging through homes, the mess they leave behind can put the worst of teenage partiers to shame.

Think Project X with four-legged house wreckers on steroids rather than two-legged house wreckers on booze and dope.

The problem with being overly friendly toward the bears is that the bears start to think you’re a pushover, and that they can do whatever they want.

Hank the Tank

Back in February, California wildlife officials in South Lake Tahoe – the Kenai Peninsula of what is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Bear State” – were forced to go on the hunt for a 500-hundred pound black bear appropriately named “Hank the Tank” after it allegedly broke into 38 homes.

U.S. Today reported local police had “tried loud sirens, dry-firing tasers and beanbag rounds to try and deter Hank from going into homes, but he still comes back,” and police were reluctant to resort to deadly means of solving the problem for fear of the public blowback.

A post on the department’s Facebook page referred to Hank as “our big bear friend who has adopted the Tahoe Keys neighborhood as his residential area….”

“He’s always lived his life in that area,” Ann Bryant, a spokeswoman for the “Bear League” told the local CBS News affiliate. “We don’t want anybody to get hurt. Nobody wants that. We don’t want the bear to die either.”

Oh the problem in trying to explain such ground rules to a bear, which lives in a world where death is a norm and woke dies because the law of the wild is simple and fundamental: the strong survive and the weak die. No special accommodations are made for size, age, gender, race, sexual identity, intellectual capability or anything else.

Wildlife officials were predictably having problems explaining this reality to well-meaning Californians living or vacationing in well-off communities where they can assuage their guilt at how easy they have it by wanting everyone and everything else to live in peace, comfort and happiness just so long as it doesn’t cause them any discomfort, physically or emotionally.

Tahoe Keys, according to its website, “is a 740 acre, private marina community connected with eleven miles of inland canals. The Tahoe Keys Property Owner’s Association includes two pools, one indoor available year round with spa and a beautiful outdoor pool set on the shores of Lake Tahoe.”

Not to mention the “private homeowners beach,” tennis and basketball courts and private security. The Tahoe Keys market report puts the median home value at $1.1 million in an area where the well-to-do owners of second homes on tiny lots have driven housing prices so high the locals have been priced out of the market.

A pilot program launched in North Tahoe this summer is now paying owners of second homes up to $24,000 if they will rent to locals. “The goal is to ‘unlock, homes that are sitting vacant in Lake Tahoe and alleviate some of the mounting pressure on local workers who are in need of places to live that they can afford on their wages,” reported SFGate, the online version of The San Fransisco Chronicle.

But there is no shortage of good intentions.

Spare the bears

“A 500-pound bear that pounces on properties with a craving for all things food has a community at odds with wildlife officials who want it dead,” reported CBS 13 in Sacramento with the hunt for Hank underway. 

And then the saga got really crazy when DNA evidence revealed Hank was sometimes being held responsible for home invasions conducted by at least two other bears. The mainstream media rushed in to cover Hank’s “exoneration.”

“Exonerated: Hank The Tank cleared of more than half accused house break-ins,” ABC 10 in Sacramento, about 100 miles west of California’s biggest lake declared after that.

This was followed by NBC News reporting “DNA Evidence Saves 500-Pound Black Bear ‘Hank The Tank’ From Euthanasia,” with California wildlife officials saying they planned to trap, tag and relocate not only Hank but two other bears.

No one reported the number of break-ins a bear was allowed before execution, but it was obviously more than three strikes. And from far away on the East Coast, the New York Times on the country’s far weighed in with a report that “thus far, those who have encountered the bears have said they had been perfectly fine houseguests, aside from the food theft and the occasional trail of destruction left behind.”

Strangely enough, the Times never quoted any actual homeowners, and whatever happened to Hank in the end is unclear. The home invasions appear to have ended but the mainstream media, as is so often the case, failed to follow up on the story.

Reporters moved on to a new story about the folks with “strange rumbling and snoring noises in their home” that turned out to be coming from “a mother bear and her four cubs” hibernating beneath a South Lake Tahoe house, NBC News reported in April

The Bear League did, however, post a video of a snow-covered Hank, or so the organization said, alive and strolling up a walkway onto someone’s deck in April.. So it is possible the bear didn’t disappear in the old-fashioned, rural Alaskan way: shoot, shovel and shut up.

The Tahoe-area bear problems did lead the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to adopt a 19-page “Black Bear Policy” for dealing with what it calls “conflict bears,” those that get just a little too comfortable enjoying the urban life.

The policy, which appeared as much public-relations spin as wildlife management, said such bears might be captured and relocated, but gave authorities broad latitude to kill bears if there was any perceived threat to public safety.

“Relocation or placement of a bear in a care facility requires careful consideration,” the policy read. “Science
is developing regarding the long-term efficacy of relocating animals. Often relocated bears return to the habitat in question over long distances. Placement of a bear means a lifetime of captivity for a once wild animal. Moreover, appropriate facilities for placement may not be available. However, relocation and placement are responsible management actions for the Department to consider as an alternative to lethal actions.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials long ago gave up on relocating bears for several reasons, starting with the fact that it usually isn’t good for the bears. There is no unoccupied bear habitat in the 49th state.

What this means is that any relocated bears are almost certain to be dropped into an area with a resident population of bears at or near carrying capacity. The local bears do not roll out the welcome matt when this happens.

Bears are territorial and aggressive animals that live by the laws of claw and fang. Wildlife researchers studying bears in Denali National Park and Preserve, where hunting of the animals is prohibited, found high natural death rates even without the competition that would be created by relocating more bears to the park.

“Ninety-nine of 148 cubs died, and 20 of 54 yearlings died,” they reported. “Known deaths of bears in all age classes were due to natural causes. No bears were removed by harvest or for management purposes….Although not confirmed, high cub and yearling mortality in Denali is believed to be a result of either starvation or predation as was the case for Yellowstone National Park.”

Black bears live in a similarly dangerous world. Researchers studying the animals in the Nimpkish Valley of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada in the early 1990s reported witnessing four cases of black bears killing and consuming other black bears. 

The Alaska experiment

The Nimpkish Valley is near the north end of the island where bears should have access to plentiful marine resources, but this did not keep them from killing and eating each other, which might explain the other problems Alaska wildlife scientists found before they stopped relocating bears:

  1. The bears invariably tried to return to the home ranges they had been occupying when captured, and they often made it back there rather quickly.
  2. Bears that had become conditioned to the easy pickings provided by humans – garbage, bird seed, dog food, etc. – usually went looking for the people they associated with easy food if they didn’t go immediately back to their old home range.

Thus Alaska got out of the bear relocation business until publicity hound Gov. Bill Walker was elected in 2014 and the next spring told Sam Cotten, his go-along Commissioner of Fish and Game, to tell his minions to capture and relocate a family of black bears causing problems in Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood.

The Alaska Dispatch News, then owned by Walker’s good friend and former Washington, D.C. socialite Alice Rogoff, promptly reported that the governor had “saved” the bears “whose pending deaths inspired passionate public outcry both in Alaska and Outside.”

Walker, unfortunately for him, didn’t get to bask in the goodness of the great Government Hill bear rescue for long after the bears were transported to the remote northwest tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Biologists thought the animals might have a chance if left there in the wilderness of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge across Turnagain Arm from the big city and tens of miles from the nearest human outposts.

Turnagain Arm is famous for its 30-foot tides and regular “bore tides” that can produce a wall of water up to six feet high that the National Weather Service reported was once seen to swallow and kill an adult, bull moose. 

The relocated bears avoided the challenging waters of the Arm, although other bears have been shown to regularly cross it, but apparently caught the human smell of the small community of Hope, about 30 miles upwind of where they had been dropped.

It took them only a few days to get there and even less time to get into trouble.

“On Saturday, June 13, the Porcupine Campground host reported that the collared bears had torn apart a campsite by shredding a tent, damaging a vehicle, and digging through coolers,” Jeannine Jabaay was soon writing in The Turnagain Times. “Previously, the bears had been credited to feasting on local chickens and acting aggressively toward a Boy Scout troop hiking near the campground.

“‘This isn’t the first time a tagged problem bear came to Hope,’ Fayrene Sherrit, the owner of Hope’s fine art gallery, told Jabaay. ‘The last time I can remember was several years ago when a large brown bear found its way to Hope. It caused all sorts of problems. And one day, it started coming into someone’s home, and they had to kill it.’”

Sherrit’s words were prophetic. Three days after Jabaay’s story ran, one of the yearling bears climbed into a van to join someone relaxing inside. That was enough for state wildlife biologists.

Over the course of the next two days, state and Forest Service shooters killed four of the five bears. The fifth bear ran off never to be seen again. It is possible the other executions left it with the message humans are to be avoided.

Walker and Cotten, for their part, finally got that message that feel-good bear relocations cause more problems than they solve. They didn’t relocate any more bears, and Fish and Game has reverted to the old policy of following nature’s way, which is to kill animals with bad judgment, even if this policy does not fit well with the feelings of people unfamiliar with how nature works.

 

 

 

15 replies »

  1. I always enjoy the Canadian signs that say a fed bear is a dead bear with the X’s on the eyes of the dead bear

  2. Craig, I think your last paragraph’s first sentence meant to use the word “got” instead of “go”. Great stories. Keep on with the salmon wars and reporting on the State’s foolhardy investment into hatcheries and ocean ranching. If only people can wake up to the self-immolation of economic opportunities.

    • I read that study. It’s interesting there is no mention of caribou in a multiple predator, multiple prey system. The ‘boo would seem to be a potential confounder.

      • Nor did it mention the excellent wolf and bear hunting bonanza or the fact that there are still plenty of both predators out there.

      • Yes, and though it concluded moose populations did not increase; that does not mean the management didn’t prevent a decline, given the whole idea behind wildlife management, or fisheries management for that matter, is mainly to take the yo-yoing out of natural systems.

    • That study admits it’s own failures and it fatally flawed when it limited itself to harvest numbers. Harvest numbers are restricted by game managers at ADFG based upon many things, but overall abundance of game being one of the bigger deciding factors, something that this study simply avoided. The people who did this study claimed they went into it with a certain hypothesis, but they clearly went into it to disprove that hypothesis. While they touch upon carrying capacity, they simply breeze over the subject and pay it no mind. While they touch upon browse and the effects of fire, they simply breeze over the subject and pay it no mind. While they touch upon the severity of the winter and it’s impact on moose survival, they simply breeze over the subject and pay it no mind. And as Craig pointed out, they do not address caribou at all…that’s a striking oversight or a purposefully omitted piece of valuable data.

      Add to that current state biologist Tom Paragi said “The fact is the moose harvest did increase substantially, almost doubling from about 2003 to 2015, coincident with the implementation of wolf control and simultaneously brown bears had been reduced because of liberalized harvest regulations”

      That study is and was a politically motivated study and used by the media to push that politically motivated agenda, anyone with even a touch of skepticism can see it for what it is simply by reading the title.

  3. Craig: Thirty wild brown bears were killed by city police, wildlife troopers or land owners around Haines in 2020 after breaking into garages, houses, etc. Bears had become habituated to garbage at our dump (where use of an electric fence boundary had been discontinued) and around homes in the vicinity of the dump, where residents didn’t take sufficient precautions to keep bears out of their garbage. The municipality was complicit, as well, for not enforcing its own ordinance requiring residents to make their trash bear-proof. In the past 30 years I’d say about 6-8 garbage bears are killed here annually. This is not a bear problem. It’s a human problem: Specifically, our failure to adjust to living in bear country. I was surprised that, given your scientific bent, you refer to “bears with bad judgment.” Bears are bears. They go where they can get food. My experience reporting in Haines for 36 years is that “bear problems,” by and large, originate with people with bad judgment. https://www.tommorphet.com/2021/03/05/dumb-and-getting-dumber-about-brown-bears/

    • I beg to differ, Tom. I was personally familiar with a big, old brown bear that used to hunt moose calves on the Anchorage Hillside every spring (may still do so) and was almost never seen, and Sean Farley’s radio-tracking of black and brown bears found some who moved through the city regularly largely unnoticed and with no problems.

      Others wander around like they own the place. Climb up onto people’s second-story decks to look for food. And otherwise make themselves a problem. But people, as you note, often bring the problems on themselves. I had to talk to more than a few neighbors over the years about garbage and on a couple of occasions did a little aversive training of my own.

      But that was in an Anchorage of yesteryear. Smacking a bear in the ass with a rubber slug on the Hillside now would probably get one in trouble though it is one way to teach them to keep their paws off garbage cans. The National Park Service for years ran an aggressive hazing program at Brooks Camp to train bears to stay out of what one might call the visitor area. Their policy then was that “yelling and loud noises should precede use of projectile noise makers. If these techniques fail, then rubber or plastic slugs may be used. Noise makers can be coupled with plastic or rubber slugs to potentially increase the effectiveness of the noisemakers if used on the same bear in the future.”

      This was not a garbage problem. It was simply a problem of being in an area with a high concentration of bears. Anchorage now seems to have a pretty high concentration of bears and garbage problems on top of that. I’m kind of surprised we haven’t had someone mauled in a garbage-filled homeless camp of which there are many in Anchorage’s parks.

      Hopefully, Haines has the electric fence up and running around the dump again. Dumps have a long dirty history with wildlife down your way. I can remember when the dump in Angoon was a major bear-viewing stop and the one in Juneau a great place to watch eagles.

      The state had a major campaign to try to clean all of this up years ago. I’m kind of curious as to how Haines got away with removing their electric fence and hope it was also temporary.

    • “…….I was surprised that, given your scientific bent, you refer to “bears with bad judgment.” Bears are bears……..”
      Are all humans criminals? Are we all blessed with equal powers of judgement? Why can’t some bears be smarter than others?

  4. Resistance is futile. Alaska (or at least Los Anchorage) will be assimilated. Kalifornia is in.

Leave a Reply