Urban bears roaming too close for comfort

Biologists say more people means more bruin encounters

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Always there have been the bears in and around Anchorage.

Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

Never before has there been a bear mauling in town.

Not that the horrific attack on 15-year-old mountain biker Petra Davis last weekend came as a shock to those familiar with local bears. A small group of wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have been warning for years that something like this could happen in popular Far North Bicentennial Park on the city's eastern edge.

Why?

Because of the salmon in Campbell Creek.

The minimum spawning goal for king salmon there is 70 fish. But for years now almost a thousand of the big salmon have reached the spawning grounds every summer. Until a children-only fishery began this year, no people were allowed to fish for these salmon. They all went to the bears. Some 20,000 pounds of fish flesh is a lure the animals cannot resist. The bears come for the kings, and they stay for the subsequent runs of reds and silvers.

Research biologist Sean Farley concluded at least 20 grizzly bears, likely more, come to feed at the stream at some point each summer. Farley knows he didn't get a record of all the grizzlies visiting the creek, and he didn't even try to count the black bears that might sneak in and try to grab a fish here and there.

Still, he discovered enough to know this:

Each year, a significant number of bears come down out of the Chugach Mountains, descend on Campbell Creek and there - on the edge of the Alaska's largest city, hidden by thick streamside brush - cluster along a salmon stream much like bears at the popular McNeil River bear viewing area on the Alaska Peninsula.

Are there more bears along the creek than in the past?

No one can say for certain. Until Farley started studying them, no one had really looked at the situation.

Plenty of people think there are more, but Farley is skeptical of anecdotal accounts. There might be more bears, Farley concedes, but there are definitely more people.

Runners, mountain bikers, equestrians, dog walkers, stroller pushers, hikers, partying teenagers and vagrants looking for a place to sleep now swarm all over the wooded 5,000 acres of Bicentennial Park and the adjacent Campbell Tract of the Bureau of Land Management.

"To be honest, I don't think there are more bears there," said John McCleary, special projects director for Parks and Recreation in the Municipality of Anchorage. "There's just more people using the park."

Some people would disagree. Some who have been hiking, running and mountain biking in the park and the adjacent Chugach State Park for decades say they see more bears and more bear sign than ever before.

Jim Renkert, a local skier vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Nordic ski team in the 1980s, trained by running through the area in those years. He never worried about bears and rarely saw one. Now, he said, encounters are regular enough that he usually carries bear spray.

Part of it could be shifting perceptions. From Bicentennial Park north toward bear-plagued Muldoon or south toward the bear-filled Anchorage Hillside, people seem increasingly worried about what they perceive to be a growing bear population.

Hillside resident Scott Gorder has seen so many bears in his yard in recent years that he's nervous about leaving his house come summer.

"It's getting absolutely ridiculous," said Gorder, 45, who lives with his family near Rabbit Creek. "My daughter was walking to the shed one day, and a (black) bear stepped out behind her. I ended up sticking a pitchfork in its butt."

A lifelong resident of the city, Gorder knows that a black bear is no match for an armed man - even if the man is only armed with a pitchfork. Black bears are fairly easily intimidated. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are not.

Wildlife biologists would not recommend sticking a grizzly with a pitchfork. The animal would be just as likely to respond by attacking as by fleeing.

Fortunately, Gorder said, the bears that have invaded his property are primarily black bears, though he wouldn't be surprised to see a grizzly. He's found grizzly tracks and what little was left of moose calves they caught.

Since he bought his home in 1990 he's seen the number of bears increase, he said.

"I grew up in town," Gorder said, "but as kids we camped everywhere (on the city's edge). I never saw a bear."

In his youth, he and friends camped and fished along Campbell Creek east of Lake Otis. They never worried about bears being attracted to their fish. They left their camp full of food. In short, they did just about everything one wants to avoid in bear country because of the danger of attracting the animals, Gorder admitted.

Still, he never saw a bear in a place where Farley over the course of the last three summers radio-tracked many of the animals.

Farley knew there were grizzlies in the area from Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road east back into the last big, undeveloped tract of the Anchorage Bowl before he started studying bears under contract with the U.S. Army at Fort Richardson. But he was more than a little surprised at how many animals he found roaming the spruce forest and tundra along the northeastern edge of the city.

Using sophisticated new techniques for fingerprinting bears based on individual DNA, Farley concluded that there were at least 36 grizzlies ranging from the city's Campbell Creek drainage into Chugach State Park, the adjacent Fort Richardson Military Reservation and beyond.

And those three dozen bears were just part of a larger population across the municipality. Farley knows that his scheme for snagging hair from passing bears and then coding the DNA didn't catch hair from all the grizzlies using the area. Four of 11 bears he had radio-collared as part of his research project never relinquished any DNA to his hair traps.

"Undoubtedly," he concluded, "the true population of bears using the study area is larger than 36 individuals."

Biologists used to speculate 50 to 60 of these bears inhabited the 1,698 square miles of the municipality. Now they suspect there are far more.

Grizzlies are the least common bear species inhabiting the Anchorage area. There are far more black bears. Area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott estimates 200 to 300 of them, but admits that's just an educated guess. There could be more. Black bears are so common they can show up almost anywhere: prancing across the route of the Anchorage Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon, sliding and swinging on backyard playground equipment on the Hillside, Dumpster diving in Girdwood or invading barbecue parties.

Gorder thinks the problem is that the Anchorage area has too many bears that are too familiar with people. They've lived unhunted in the city for so long that they no longer view humans as much of a threat. Come spring, he said, they hunt moose calves in his yard and don't seem to mind the people around.

"I think next they're going to take a kid," he said weeks before 15-year-old cyclist Davis was mauled a bear. "I like the wildlife as much as the next guy, but we should at least be secure in our little (human) footprint.

"The bear population has grown steadily every year I've been here. It's a bad thing."

Farley and Sinnott aren't so sure about the conclusion that the bear population has grown, but they agree that contacts between bears and people are up.

Sprawl has removed forest on the suburban edge of Anchorage, making bears easier to spot, they said. More people living in the same size area is inevitably going to lead to more contacts between people and bears, even if the number of bears remains constant.

Bears live to eat, breed and sleep through the long Alaska winters. Almost from the day they emerge from their dens in spring until the day they return in the fall, they are eating machines on the prowl for easy calories.

From moose calves in the spring to salmon in the summer to garbage, dog food and bird seed almost any time, Anchorage edibles look good to a bear.

Fish and Game has lobbied the city to ticket local residents who allow bears into their garbage, and is in the midst of a full-scale bear-education program, sometimes sending employees door-to-door to explain to homeowners that if food is left out, they can expect bears.

All of this has some people asking if there are too many bears in Anchorage. Have bears become too emboldened around people almost 40 years after bear hunting was largely eliminated by creation of the 500,000-acre Chugach State Park in the mountains behind the city?

The answer is one Anchorage residents must decide. People were surveyed on the subject about a decade ago, McCleary said. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of more animals.

"People wanted to see bears, and they wanted to see moose," he said.

But times have changed. Moose have stomped two people to death in Anchorage and have become so numerous that they are nuisances in some neighborhoods and dangers around some schools. And bear numbers are making some people uncomfortable.

"Before, you felt pretty safe close to civilization," said 1960 Olympic biathlete Dick Mize, who continues to mountain bike, hike and ski all over the Anchorage area. Seeing a bear was a rare treat. Now, said Mize, encounters are so common hikers and bikers need be almost constantly on guard.



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