Bears do more than poop in the woods. They carve up the forest with their claws. In an area off Glacier Highway between a muskeg meadow and a salmon stream stands one of the biggest concentrations of bear-marked trees in Juneau. And it's getting bigger.
"That wasn't here four years ago," said wildlife artist Ed Mills, pointing to inch-wide, 2-foot-long claw marks up the trunk of a tall alder tree. "That could be a brownie or a huge black bear."
Nearby, dozens if not hundreds of other alders showed signs of bear activity. Some had the short, shallow marks of a frightened cub scampering up a trunk. But others displayed long, deep gashes left by adult bears in what may be a territorial claim.
Mills, a longtime outdoorsman who leads the city Parks and Recreation Department's Wednesday hikes, said he came across the bear-marked alder grove about six years ago while exploring the Peterson Lake Trail area.
Later observation showed an environment friendly to large numbers of bruins, with plenty of food and protection for sows and cubs.
"This is bear city," Mills said. "I came up near here in July and got growled at."
Two Juneau-based wildlife experts said nobody's sure about the full dynamics of tree-marking by bears.
Climbing marks left by smaller bears have a simple explanation, said Fish and Game Department biologist Neil Barten.
"A place like that is an advantageous spot for females to fish and they send their cubs up a tree so they don't have to worry about them," he said.
Barten and Fish and Game co-worker Vern Beier, who studies mostly brown bears, said tree-clawing could be a declaration of territory or other statement of dominance.
"It's kind of like a hotel register," Beier said. "A bear goes by there and he scratches. Another bear goes by and he sees so-and-so's been here."
Bears also rub against trees, leaving behind fur and smell, which also could be a territorial marker.
"You'll see them stand up and urinate too, making a scent mark," Beier said. "Where that all fits into the big picture, whether some of them move on out of there because so-and-so's there, it's a mystery of bear behavior."
Bear claw marks are not rare, but a concentration such as the one Mills found is unusual. He and Beier separately have found similar marked-up areas on Admiralty Island. But neither remembered one so close to Juneau's urban areas.
The marked-up grove is mostly large alders, some 40 or more feet tall, surrounded by muskeg and spruce. Fresh, narrow marks show splintered reddish-brown wood beneath blotchy white and light green, moss-dotted bark. Older, wider scratches look healed over. Cub-climbing marks go 20 feet up the trunks. And on one tree, Mills pointed to an 8-foot-high scratch from a bear bigger than one would want to meet at close range.
"Supposedly they do 'high-marking' to show how tall they are," he said.
The bear-marked grove has provided inspiration for Mills, a former bow-and-arrow hunter and professional wildlife painter. One work of art titled "High Marking," on display at the Southeast Artworks gallery in the Nugget Mall, shows a glacier bear stretching to mark a tree.
Mills said he's watched black and brown bears in different color variations, including sows with as many as three cubs, in the tree-marked area. He keeps his distance during the summer and only ventures in when the weather's cold and the bears are sleeping away the winter.
"I've been in some heavy bear country, but I wouldn't want to be here when they're here," he said.
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.