As winter creeps down the Chugach Mountains and the grizzly bears start the move toward their dens, wildlife biologists and others have begun to contemplate whether the city's summer of bears was an aberration or the face of what is to come.
Some now wonder if an environmental success story -- the restoration of salmon runs in Anchorage streams -- has set the stage for an unfolding community crisis. They are wondering whether a mandate to maintain salmon runs at maximum sustainable levels will make the growing bear-human problems in the city even worse.
What garbage is to black bears, salmon are to grizzlies. Salmon lure bears into the city. The attendant problems became painfully clear this summer.
Never before had sprawling urbanization collided so visibly with Big Wild Life. Two people were mauled in the Anchorage Bowl, where no previous maulings had taken place. Another was mauled not far from downtown Eagle River. And a huge grizzly boar was struck and killed by an automobile on a Midtown street. Runners and mountain bikers were chased or confronted by grizzlies in Hillside parks.
"Who knows what this means," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley. "I don't have a Ouija board for bears."
But he knows that two big issues are the number of bears and the presence of salmon.
"The fish were late, and there are fewer of them. So the bears are going to move around looking for fish," he said. In the process, the bears ran into people with an alarming regularity.
All of the grizzly problems took place near salmon streams, Farley noted. In that regard, he said, the situation in Anchorage is not much different than the long-running problem at the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula.
Just a few miles back along the Sterling Highway from that stream flows Cooper Creek. It once supported a bountiful run of salmon and lured many grizzly bears. Then Chugach Electric built a hydropower plant upstream at Cooper Lake in 1959. Creek water temperatures plummeted and salmon stopped coming back to spawn. Today, Farley said, it is rare to find a bear along Cooper Creek.
Farley said he has tried repeatedly to explain this grizzly-salmon relationship to Anchorage officials intent on improving and increasing salmon habitat in the Anchorage Bowl, but "the city has not been receptive to anything that I said."
City planning director Tom Nelson disagrees. The city, he said, is very sensitive to wildlife issues, but "the jurisdiction for management of wildlife lies with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game."
It isn't quite that simple. The wildlife division of Fish and Game is responsible for managing bears and the fisheries divisions are responsible for managing fish, but fisheries biologists say they are under a state constitutional mandate to maintain salmon runs at maximum sustainable levels.
For that reason, they have for years protected Campbell Creek king salmon from anglers and poachers. The result has been the restoration of what once was a depleted fishery. The creek now sometimes gets more than 1,000 spawning kings, enough to support a bounty of bears.
And the twists and turns of fisheries management don't end with this one run of kings. Local angling interests and the city have both pushed for expansion of so-called "urban fisheries.'' That has led to the stocking of Ship Creek, Campbell Creek, Eagle River and other waters. Stocked salmon in Ship Creek now support a hugely popular downtown king salmon fishery in May and June.
Fans of that fishery are arguing for removal of a dam that stops the fish from going upstream beyond the Elmendorf Fish Hatchery. Opening Ship Creek to more salmon, Farley said, is sure to lure more bears out of the mountains.
Given the situation, Anchorage Assemblyman Bill Starr from Eagle River says it is clearly time for the city to come up with a policy for managing bears in Anchorage. The city, he said, has a responsibility to protect its citizens.
"I'm not very comfortable with the state setting policy for us,'' Starr said. Among his ideas are hiring a borough wildlife-management officer to keep an eye on bear and moose problems and working with Fish and Game to identify and, if necessary, kill animals that appear unafraid of people or are aggressive toward them.
Management won't be easy. Even if Anchorage residents want more bears shot adjacent to the city, and it's not clear that they do, that is a risk-laden operation, said area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott of Fish and Game. The last thing anyone needs is a wounded, angry bear roaming around Anchorage parks, he said.
A wounded bear is likely to be more aggressive than a healthy bear. And healthy bears, at least until this summer, had never attacked anyone in the Bowl.
THE SUMMER OF THE BEARS
A winter that had hung on unseasonably long was barely fading when bear problems began. A pair of runners were lucky to escape injury when they were run over by a bear on June 14. Fifteen days later, Petra Davis, 15, was not so lucky.
The cyclist competing in a 24-hour mountain bike race at Hillside Park was nearly killed by a bear. The bear punctured one of her lungs and broke eight of her ribs. A tooth nicked her carotid artery. The mauling set the city on edge. Not since a bear killed Marcie Trent, 77, and her son Larry Waldron, 45, along the McHugh Creek trail south of the city in 1995 had residents of the city been so concerned. Use of popular Hillside parks plummeted.
Even so, runners and mountain bikers who continued to use popular trails were chased by grizzlies. All but 51-year-old Clivia Feliz were lucky to get away. In mid-August, she was attacked by a bear on Rover's Run, the same trail where a bear attacked Davis. Feliz, like Davis, ended up in the hospital.
This time, Fish and Game biologists were able to identify the bear that attacked. They killed it and sent its two cubs to the Alaska Zoo. Some Anchorage residents were outraged. The grizzly sow, they argued, should have been allowed to live. When it attacked Feliz, it was just doing what bears do.
The same could have been said for the 731-pound, 15-year-old grizzly hit by a car near Cal Worthington Ford in Midtown early on Aug. 22. The collision happened just downhill from a busy movie theater, across the street from a soccer field, near the city's most popular football field, and adjacent to the heavily traveled Chester Creek bike trail. Hardly the place most people would expect to find a grizzly, but Farley said, "he wasn't lost.''
Farley knew the dead animal as Bear 211. It had once worn a radio collar that tracked movements in the city. Moving quietly, usually when the city is asleep, Bear 211 and others like it were found to range widely through the Bowl. Once, Farley said, he circled over 211 in an airplane and watched as it appeared to study traffic on Tudor Road.
Near Tudor Road sits an expansive greenbelt along Chester Creek, a salmon stream. The stream doesn't get many fish now, but it gets some. It will get more. A fish pass built when Chester Creek was dammed to create Westchester Lagoon decades ago is being rebuilt to allow easy salmon passage.
Salmon are a wonderful thing, said Holly Kent, executive director of the Anchorage Waterways Council.
"Salmon are a very good indicator species," she said. "If the water is clean enough for salmon to live there, it's pretty clean. Salmon are also an integral part of Alaska."
But Kent is aware of the movements of Bear 211 and others like him.
Rebuilding salmon runs, Kent said, "is definitely going to be an interesting situation. I know Fish and Game and the city have been sort of dancing around the (bear) issue. Nobody wants to take it on.''
A PROBLEM BY DESIGN?
Anchorage is in some ways designed to create dangerous encounters between humans and wildlife.
Decades ago as the city entered a period of rapid growth, leaders created greenbelts to protect the city's main urban streams -- Chester Creek, Campbell Creek and Rabbit Creek. The greenbelts, said Nelson, provide natural corridors for wildlife to move between the still-wild lands on the city's east and the undeveloped Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and Kincaid Park on the west.
When the suburbs were more rural than urban, there were few problems. Both bear and moose numbers were kept down by hunting. Fishing, sometimes poaching, kept salmon numbers low in city streams too. There simply weren't as many fish to attract bears, and possibly not as many bears.
Until 1973, hunters shot black and grizzly bears within sight of downtown. That ended with the creation of Chugach State Park, a refuge for bears and moose along the Front Range Chugach Mountains.
An explosion in the moose population followed. Moose, like salmon, are a food source luring bears into the city. Farley last year had one of the grizzlies he was studying kill a full-grown moose in the greenbelt just off Campbell Creek not far from the Fish and Game offices on C Street. The kill site was only a short walk from the nearest Costco.
Many in Anchorage are thrilled that people and wildlife can coexist like this. Nelson said the city believes "the presence of wildlife in Anchorage is one of the important characteristics that people have expressed a desire to retain, along with the risks associated with it.''
The grizzly that killed the moose in 2007 was living, at least temporarily, in the Campbell Creek Greenbelt. A popular bike trail also runs through that greenbelt, and there are a bunch of parks where children play.
TOO MANY BEARS?
There is no denying 2008 was an unusual summer, Sinnott said.
"I've been really talking to myself about this," he said. "We've got a lot more people; we've got a lot more people using the trails. We've kind of pinched down (bear) movement corridors.
"The salmon were late. The devil's club berries were late in ripening. No fish. No berries. I think the bears were kind of hungry."
Hunger puts bears on the prowl for food. As a result, people are likely to see more bears. It could be there were the same number of bears in Anchorage this year as in the past, but the chances of running into one simply went up.
Still, most of the estimated 300 black and grizzly bears in the area stayed out of trouble. Many of these bears were probably never even seen by anyone.
As for the minority that caused problems, "my hypothesis is that we just have a higher percentage of bears that are stupid," Sinnott said.
Most of the dumb bears might well be dead by now, shot by humans. It is possible their deaths were linked to poor growing conditions and weak salmon runs due to the third-coldest summer in Anchorage history. It is possible the whole summer of the bears might turn out to have been a rare, weather-related event . It is possible that next summer could pass trouble free.
Farley isn't counting on it.
He's convinced that if salmon runs are further increased in Anchorage streams, naturally or otherwise, more bears will come.
"There are these unintended consequences,'' he said.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.