Bear killings in Mat-Su area highest in a decade

Many attracted by trash left out; no charges filed

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

ANCHORAGE So far this summer, 18 bears have been killed in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area in encounters with humans.

The number is the highest in more than a decade, said state biologist Herman Griese.

"It's been a miserable year," he said. And he suspects many more bears were killed in the area north of Anchorage but the deaths were not reported.

Most of the bears have been young, less than four years old, and most were black bears. But the numbers also include five brown bears, including two shot in Talkeetna over three days in June. Bears also have been killed in Houston, Willow, and in neighborhoods around Palmer and Wasilla.

A sow with three young cubs was shot on the Willow side of Hatcher Pass after it got too close to a family dog. Another was killed when it attacked a man's hogs. On the Palmer side of Hatcher Pass, a black bear nosed too far into the Motherlode Lodge and was shot by workers there.

Biologists can't relocate the bears in Mat-Su because there's no place to take them, he said. They would simply displace other bears.

Martin Hammer said he didn't want to shoot the brown bear last month near Wasilla, but it started toward some children who went out to grab their dog to get it out of the way of the bear.

He first fired a warning shot, and then climbed up on his roof to stand watch. The bear ran into the woods but came right back into the neighbor's yard where the kids were, he said.

"He didn't show any fear," Hammer said. "I've got to protect the children and people in the area."

Other bears have been shot but not killed. One sow in Talkeetna that has yearling cubs was crippled when a shot broke one of her legs, Griese said. The bear has not been aggressive toward people, so biologists have left her alone.

No one has been charged with violating the law in any of the shootings, state fish and wildlife protection officials said. But while each case has its own details, many of the bears have been attracted by trash left out by residents. The bears learn to associate humans with food and then become a threat to people, Griese said.

In Talkeetna, three bears have been shot so far this year.

For the past month, a group of three brown bears has been making nearly nightly rounds through the downtown, said Aaron Benjamin, who owns Talkeetna River Adventures and manages a boat launch in town.

The bears raid trash bins and scare squatters who have put up campsites near town. Benjamin said he had metal lids and locks installed on his bins to keep bears away.

"I'm sure one of these bears is going to catch a bullet here," he said.

He thinks the problem is that hunters didn't kill enough bears this year.

A brown bear was killed in February in Talkeetna after it apparently came out of hibernation and began feeding on a woman's repository of trash. After it finished a trailerful, the woman started feeding the bear in hopes that it wouldn't eat her horses, Griese said. Biologists trapped and killed the bear.

In the Anchorage area, biologist Rick Sinnott has relocated a record six bears this summer. Another 10 bears have been shot, he said.

On the Kenai Peninsula, only two bears have been killed by people defending themselves or their property, state biologist Ted Spraker said. But his office has been kept busy with calls about nuisance brown bears, including one that ate nearly two dozen chickens, gorging itself during two visits to a Moose Pass chicken coop.

This summer's abundance of bear encounters may be the result of a good berry crop a few years ago, which spawned a bumper crop of cubs, Sinnott said. It also may be due to more people moving into bear habitat.

Griese thinks this summer's early warm weather may have contributed, drying up sedges and other grasses that bears like to feed on and sending them in search of other food.

"It's frustrating," said Griese, who has been averaging 10 calls a day about bear sightings and complaints. "Here we are in the middle of bear country. People aren't thinking. They're not thinking a bear is going to come along."

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