Bear 'haven' on wrong side of law

State is investigating Yentna River homestead with hopes of taking action

November 16, 2008 

Just beyond the freezing waters of the Susitna River 40 miles north of Anchorage, Bear Haven is already cloaked in the white silence of the long Alaska winter. Gone back to their dens in the wild are the two dozens bears that visited Charlie Vandergaw's Yentna River homestead over the summer. Off to their studios across the ocean are the filmmakers who came to document the life of the retired Anchorage school teacher who has for decades chosen to spend his summers cohabitating with wild bears.

Left hanging is what the new year will bring.

Long unhappy with Vandergaw's intimate relationship with wild Alaska bears, state authorities are moving to put Bear Haven out of business. Vandergaw has already been cited for feeding bears, but the charges levied against him next could go much farther.

"An investigation is ongoing,'' said Alaska assistant attorney general Andrew Peterson.

Peterson refused to reveal specifics, but the investigation appears to center around Richard Perry, an English filmmaker who was bitten in the leg by a bear while filming at Bear Haven this summer. Perry is at work on a multipart series about Vandergaw and his bears for "Animal Planet,'' a cable-television network.

Perry said he didn't think the bite all that significant, but it left visible teeth marks in his lower leg and required first aid. Peterson said state investigators have interviewed Perry.

Other attorneys say state prosecutors could use the attack to charge Vandergaw with reckless endangerment, a class A misdemeanor with a possible sentence of up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine or both. State law says someone is guilty of this crime if he "recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person."

Vandergaw's attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, said he has been given no hint of what action the state might take against his client. Vandregaw has offered to cooperate with the investigation, Fitzgerald said. He does not want to make trouble and, Fitzgerald added, "there are things here I would think the government would be well to consider.''

Vandergaw himself has not been returning phone calls. The 70-year-old former Dimond High science teacher and wrestling coach is a bit mercurial.

He spent almost 20 years at his homestead largely trying to avoid public attention, but flung open the doors to his cabin in 2007 after the Daily News first publicly revealed Bear Haven and what was going on there.

That same summer, British documentary filmmaker Jon Alwen spent 51 days filming Vandergaw and some two dozen bears -- both grizzlies and blacks -- for the film "The Man Who Lives with Bears.'' It aired widely in Europe.

American television quickly followed by sending a reporter from ABC's "Primetime'' to the bear farm.

This summer Perry from "Animal Planet'' and Australian TV's "60 Minutes'' were at Bear Haven. The latter just happened to be there when Perry was bitten and subsequently posted a story and photographs of the bite on its Web site.

Aussie reporter Liam Bartlett also solicited a confession from Vandergaw about the dangers unique to his homestead.

"I've been slapped. I've been knocked unconscious. I've been T-boned by large bears and knocked to the ground and had a hard time getting up,'' the 70-year-old Vandergaw told the reporter. "I've been thrown to the ground by bears, but it was in no way that any of those was an all-out attack. I guarantee I wouldn't be sitting here today if a bear had given me an all-out attack. At the same time, it's probably like anything else -- if you've got thousands of hours with bears, the odds are. ... The odds are mounting. ...''

Everyone -- including Vandergaw -- agrees that what he is and has been doing is potentially dangerous.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have long lobbied to have Bear Haven shut down not only for the danger posed to Vandergaw and the visitors he invites there, but because of the bad example set.

"It's really problematic,'' said Anchorage area biologist Rick Sinnott. "Breaking the law is bad enough, but that fact he's gone international with it. ... and advocated it. ... that's really a bad message to get across to people.''

Sinnott and others have spent the past several years trying to crack down on Anchorage residents accidentally feeding bears by letting the animals get into garbage. While the authorities here have been handing out $100 to $300 tickets to people with bears in Dumpsters or garbage cans, Vandergaw has been flying hundreds of pounds of dog food to his cabin north of the community of Alexander Creek so that he could intentionally feed bears.

This spring, he applied for a state bear-baiting permit in an attempt to legalize the feeding. Bear-baiting permits are given to hunters so they can put out feed stations to attract bears and kill them, but the law does not specify hunters must shoot the bears at such sites.

In fact, many hunters shoot only a small percentage of bears that visit their bait stations. And state law bans shooting grizzly bears or sows with cubs -- whether black or grizzly -- that visit bait stations in most areas of the state. The major exception is in Game Management Unit 16, where a state predator control program aims to cut the bear population by more than half to give moose calves a better chance at survival. Nearly all of those calves are now eaten each spring by the unit's estimated 1,900 black bears.

Thus, hunters with permits for Unit 16 have been encouraged to kill all black bears that visit their bait sites, including sows and cubs. Vandergaw's homestead happens to sit in the middle of Unit 16, but he has never had any intention of helping with the bear killing.

In an interview with a Daily News reporter at Bear Haven in the summer of 2006, Vandergaw railed against state bear-control efforts, calling them misguided, unfair and worse. He believes bears are mainly misunderstood. Though he admits those that visit his homestead are wild and potentially dangerous, he also sometimes slips into using the word "friend'' when referring to them.

Since it was clear Vandergaw had no intention of killing any of his "friends," the state earlier this year revoked his bear baiting permit. The decision, though unprecedented, was not difficult, said state director of Wildlife Conservation Doug Larsen, among the many who believe Vandergaw's bear feeding has to stop.

"Charlie is viewed by officials as a rogue, teaching his bears very bad habits,'' Bartlett said on Australian TV.

Vandergaw counters that he's just an old man living with some unorthodox friends far from anyone and hurting no one. He dismisses the idea that his bears -- which not only are fed and conditioned to tolerate humans but in some cases trained to enter buildings -- are any threat.

He believes his bears are smart enough to understand that Bear Haven is different from the few other homesteads sprinkled across tens of miles of wilderness in the Yentna River basin.

"If they go from here to my neighbor's and start trashing his place looking for food, they're dead,'' he told Bartlett.

"But you don't want to see that?'' Bartlett said.

"That would be terrible,'' Vandergaw said. "The only thing I can say to you is that in all the years I've been here I don't believe I've lost a single bear to a neighbor.''

One neighbor disagrees. An old friend of Vandergaw's, who asked not to be named for fear of destroying the friendship, said he has over the years shot a couple of bears that persisted in hanging around his summer cabin. He thinks the bears were animals Vandergaw conditioned to go to people for food

The neighbor didn't like such bears getting close to young family members. Sinnott each year shoots some black bears in Anchorage for similar reasons. Once the animals become too aggressive in their demands for food, biologists agree, they become dangerous, especially to children

Vandergaw admitted to the Daily News that he is addicted to the bears. He told Australian television audiences he'd keep doing what he's doing even if it became deadly dangerous.

"Well, what do you want me to do?'' he asked. "Say I want to die wearing a diaper in a nursing home? If I'm capable of having wonderful, exciting, happy days creating this place and playing with these bears, who's the winner? Am I like some sorry sucker who happened to work until he's 70 in an office. Is that living? No, I beg to differ with you; that's existing. I live out here. Every day is wonderful out here."

And yet, Perry -- the Animal Planet filmmaker who spent nearly the entire Alaska summer at Bear Haven -- said he got the feeling that Vandergaw might, at last, be ready to give it up, weighed down by the increased pressure from Alaska authorities, the rising cost of av-gas which makes flying expensive dog food to his homestead ever more expensive, and the first signs of the frailty of age.

Few know better than Vandergaw how the behavior of bears can change based on the behavior of the people around them.

"One needs to know, as with dogs, how to dominate them,'' said Val Giest, an authority on predator behavior at the University of Calgary in Canada. "However, with age or infirmity, matters may go astray, especially with grizzlies."

Timothy Treadwell, like Vandergaw, was addicted to bears. His addiction died in a now famous bear attack on the Katmai Coast in October 2003. Both Treadwell and a girlfriend were killed and eaten by a grizzly.

Vandergaw has always prided himself on being smarter than Treadwell and in better control of his situation. Whether he goes the way of Treadwell, decides to abandon Bear Haven, or is forced by authorities to do so, only time will tell.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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