To live with bears, we may need to kill some bears

April 20, 2009 

If you are coming to Anchorage this summer, be afraid -- beary, beary afraid.

If you live here, go inside now. Bar the doors. Lock the windows. And start loading the guns.

It's spring and time for "Bear Attack!"

Discovery Channel, the cable TV network, was all over this last week on its Alaska Week, where everything about the 49th state became X-treme!

Here was the "Bear Attack!" promo:

"In a short time, three people are viciously mauled by a bear in the Anchorage area, and many more have dangerously close encounters. Could one aggressive bear be responsible for all these attacks? What is increasing the rate of bear-human urban encounters?"

In the video itself, "Bear Attack!" producers go on the hunt for an imaginary bear that mighta, coulda, we-only-wish-it-woulda been a "rogue bear" terrorizing the city.

They eventually concede such a bear never existed, before pointing out that it could have.

Why, in Kamchatka last year, or so it is portrayed, a whole gang of bears went on a rampage at a mine, feasting on two guards and injecting terror into the hearts of miners who then apparently locked themselves in the mine tunnels, or so it would appear in the "Bear Attack!" video.

As with most tall tales, there is a grain of truth to this one. The world press had a field day with the mauling deaths of two mine guards last summer.

The Times of London reported it this way:

"Terrified workers at a mining compound in one of Russia's most isolated regions are refusing to go to work after a pack of giant bears attacked and ate two of their colleagues.

"At least 30 of the hungry animals have been seen prowling close to the mines in northern Kamchatka in search of food, where the mangled remains of the two workers, both guards, were found last week.

"The co-workers at the compound in the Olyotorsky district are trapped and frightened: the gruesome discovery has left them too scared to venture out. A team of snipers, with orders to shoot the bears, is now being dispatched to confront the invasion."

As it later turned out, the guards were apparently killed, but not eaten, by bears attracted to community garbage. Gatherings of bears to feast on human refuse -- garbage to us, easy calories to them -- used to be a common thing in Alaska.

If you wanted to see a grizzly on Admiralty Island west of Juneau back before it became a national monument, the easiest thing to do was go to the dump in the nearby village of Angoon. "Packs" of bears were sometimes there feeding.

Over the past two decades, Alaska has made a concerted effort to clean up its dumps so they are not bear magnets. But several bears were killed in and around a waste transfer station in Cooper Landing last year, and a young woman was mauled not far away at the Kenai Princess Lodge. She survived.

There remains little doubt that if you bait bears into a community with garbage or a big run of salmon in a midtown stream and you then throw a bunch of people into the mix, something bad will happen.

As Anchorage discovered last summer, most of the bears will avoid most of the people most of the time. And some of the bears will avoid all of the people all of the time. But you can't expect all of the bears to avoid all of the people all of the time.

It's likely one of the maulings here began with a human attacking a bear, albeit accidentally. Teenage mountain-bike racer Petra Davis may have collided -- or nearly collided -- with a bear in the dark along Campbell Creek, setting off the attack that left her seriously injured.

Not that it was her fault. Davis could have been any of us who mountain bike regularly around Anchorage. One of my Hillside neighbors and I have both come close to T-boning bears on area trails. The risk goes with living in bear country.

How big is the risk?

Discovery contends there were nine violent brown bear "attacks" in Anchorage city limits over six weeks last summer. The reality is more like two violent attacks, six scary encounters and one who-knows-what -- the latter being 18-year-old Devon Rees' street fight with a bear at 2 a.m. out in Eagle River. Rees ended up nipped a few times.

It was pretty clear early on that there was no rogue bear. There were two bear attacks -- Rees and Davis -- which involved rare, chance encounters between people and bears at very close range in the dark or near dark.

And there were a whole bunch of incidents, including a mauling involving an unusually aggressive Hillside Park-area sow with cubs.

In "Bear Attack!", Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott portrays this bear as the "good mother,'' which has pretty much been the agency's position from the get go.

So let's see, I'm the father of a daughter. She attracts male friends. If I get aggressive with some of them, and then pound the snot out of one because I just don't like the looks of him, does that make me the "good father"?

It's time to give some thought to this because bears are emerging from their dens in the mountains above Anchorage. They will soon start coming down into town. Most will try to avoid us. A few will probably prove less than vigilant at all times and thus encounter people before fleeing in terror.

But there is always the possibility there will again be a rare bear unable to grasp the idea of how to behave properly around humans. There are two things that can be done about that bear:

Fish and Game can try to identify it quickly, kill it and remove the threat to public safety.

Or we can give our green spaces over to the bear, much like we did last year; wait for the inevitable mauling sure to come anyway and get ready for the next TV crew to arrive.

This doesn't seem like a difficult choice. To live with the bears, we may need to kill some bears.

I know this will be troubling to a few, but people killing bears to make our joint living arrangements work is largely the way it has been with Alaskans and bears for about 10,000 years.

Then again, I guess we could go inside now. Bolt the doors. Lock the windows. And stay until the snow flies.


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

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