Glacier bear hit by vehicle disappears

Light-colored black bears a rare species

Posted: Monday, June 12, 2006

Bears aren't uncommon on Juneau's streets. Sometimes they even get hit by cars. But when the black bears aren't black, they can inspire double-takes.

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At least one glacier bear - a black bear with gray coloring - appears to be out this spring, although it might be banged up after being hit by a car Friday morning.

"We've had more than our fair share," Juneau resident Pat Costello said of glacier bears. "In terms of the world, they are very rare."

In 2002, inspired by an all-white black bear in Juneau, Costello spearheaded an effort that led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Board to protect white-colored black bears from hunters.

"It's a shame we can't protect all the glacier bears," he said. "The hunters wouldn't like that."

Even glacier bears that avoid hunters seem to get mixed up in more than their share of trouble, considering there aren't many of them, he added.

State wildlife biologist Neil Barten said the report he got of a glacier bear sighting Friday came from OnStar, the General Motors emergency communications service. A dispatcher told him a car hit a glacier bear on Glacier Highway at the Peterson Creek bridge, about 25 miles out from the downtown area, and the driver thought it might be dead. Another driver who reported seeing the accident to Fish and Game said the bear appeared to roll down the hill.

Barten said it he went to the area, found signs a bear had been off the road, but found no signs of the bear.

"That's as much as I know," Barten said. "Given what I know about bears being hit by cars - there are a lot of bears hit by cars you'd think that would be dead, and they aren't."

A deer is long-legged and bony, he said. They are easier to break. A bear is "roly-poly."

He hopes the number of deer hit by cars diminishes as Juneau "greens up" and they move away from the roadways. Bears aren't a serious traffic problem now. They at the biggest risk of being hit by cars from about mid-August through October, when the days are getting shorter and they are more active before going into hibernation. In the fall, black bears can be especially difficult to see on rainy nights, he added.

Barten said he didn't look for the light-colored glacier bear hit on a sunny Friday. Evidence showed it regrouped and left the scene.

The grayish color phase is uncommon, but bears that have it show up often enough in Juneau that he wouldn't call them rare here, he said.

Black bears range from jet black to white, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Although powerful, black bears are the smallest and most abundant of the bears found in North America.

A 1952 story in the Dawson Weekly News in the Yukon's Dawson City reported that a big-game hunter was believed to have been the first in nearly half a century to shoot "one of the rare glacier bears found only in Alaska's Yakutat Bay region." It said glacier bears vary in color from a soiled whitish coat to one of dark blue with a few gray hairs. The trophy was described as having "a pelt which is light gray with darker ears and paws, and even seemed to be tinged with green and silver."

Costello, who used to maintain the Web site juneau said Yakutat used to be known as the place to find glacier bears, but he believes there are more common in the Juneau area.

It didn't take a hunting party to track down a glacier bear in July 2003. A Juneau police officer shot an aggressive glacier bear in the Mendenhall Valley after responding to a call for help from a family. The bear was photographed going through trash in the Thunder Mountain neighborhood earlier in the day.

Costello said a garbage-raiding glacier bear captured some years ago in the Gastineau Avenue area downtown ended up in the Anchorage Zoo. As one of the people who worked to change garbage handling rules to cut down on the number of bear incidents in the community, he said he finds glacier bears seem to be involved in a garbage raids and traffic accidents.

"They are very striking," he said of glacier bears. He also knows he isn't alone in admiring them. His photograph of the white bear in August received worldwide coverage and was referred to by some as a mythical "spirit bear."

"It almost glowed," Costello said.

He recalled that he heard from people around the world and was interviewed by the BBC. "I heard from people in Iceland who read about it in Stars and Stripes," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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