Fur flies over bears as summer brings them out

May 11, 2009 

Spring is here and bears are emerging from their dens for the short stroll to Alaska's largest city. Some residents are putting out the NO VACANCY sign.

Anchorage has a reputation for being bear tolerant, but after three maulings last summer -- including a that of 15-year-old girl who nearly bled to death when attacked by a grizzly in a city park -- a chorus of outrage is building.

Wanda Phillips is among the concerned. She recently moved from Washington state -- where she saw no bears -- to the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River, where there are lots of bears.

Last summer, Phillips saw at least 10 bears near her home. A grizzly camped out in her back yard defending a moose kill. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials told her to keep the family inside until the bear was finished with the carcass.

"It (that advice) didn't seem very helpful to me," she said. "We have a real safety problem. The fact they are ignoring it is a time bomb."

Anchorage is unique among midsize American cities. The municipality's 285,000 residents share space with at least 65 brown bears and about 250 black bears. The sprawling municipality is surrounded by wild country. Anchorage is next to Chugach State Park, a half-million-acre park that wildlife officials have described as a "bear factory."

In the history of Anchorage, there has been only one fatal attack by a grizzly bear. In July 1995, a mother and her son ran into a bear defending a moose kill along the McHugh Creek Trail outside the main part of the city. Both people were attacked and died.

However, the mauling of Petra Davis at Far North Bicentennial Park, followed by another attack on the same park trail later last summer and the mauling of a young man in Eagle River, have some residents demanding a crackdown on the bears.

Trash day is a real spectacle, Phillips said.

"You can sit on the deck and look from our windows and watch them cruise the neighborhood looking for people that don't use bear cans. They literally go from driveway to driveway to driveway," Phillips said.

Her children are not allowed to walk alone this time of year. They always are armed with pepper spray, she said.

Last summer, some children walking home from school encountered a large grizzly. They huddled up in a driveway, made lots of noise to scare off the bear and called for help on their cell phones.

Phillips, who was at her job 20 minutes away, got a call.

"My kids are screaming, 'There is a grizzly bear. We can't get home,' " she said.

One of the mothers rescued the children.

"I think a kid is going to end up being killed," Phillips said.

WARNING SIGNS

Already this summer, there is a feeling of deja vu. Last Friday, a sign went up on one of the city's most popular trails warning people of a black bear sow defending her cubs. Last month, a black bear chased some skiers and treed a man in the same park where two maulings occurred last summer.

"People think, 'Holy cow, we are under assault,' " said Rick Sinnott, an area biologist with the Department of Fish and Game overseeing the bear problem.

In a move to target bolder bears before they reach Anchorage, Sinnott said hunting opportunities for brown bear have been increased in Chugach State Park. Ten permits will be issued. Sinnott hopes no more than three are killed.

"We don't really want to reduce the population that much," he said.

Anchorage is not being overrun by bears, Sinnott said.

"It was kind of an unusual situation last year, in part because I think we had a couple of brown bear sows with cubs in places where we probably can't tolerate them," he said.

He points to a 1997 survey that showed most people in Anchorage liked having bears around. But, he said, Anchorage's tolerance could be waning. Another survey is planned for this fall.

In the meantime, Anchorage's bear management policy will remain much the same as in the past, Sinnott said. If a particular bear is dangerous and has hurt someone and is likely to hurt someone again, it will be shot, Sinnott said.

Even if it appears more dangerous than the average bear but hasn't hurt anyone, it will be destroyed, he said. But, he said, there will be no mass extermination of bears.

"The people that want us to shoot all the bears in town, that is unreasonable," Sinnott said. "We don't kill bears in retribution. We try to examine each case."

TRASH FINES

Thomas Wood, a longtime Eagle River resident, said Anchorage's approach to bear management is "nonsense."

"They should shoot all the bears in town," he said. "Now they are coddling the bears so people are getting hurt. It is so stupid. The inmates are running the asylum."

Sinnott is not going to abandon old themes.

"I am still going to hammer on people about garbage this year," he said.

Last year, the city replaced more than 20 municipal trash containers in municipal parks with bear-resistant cans. This summer, the city plans to replace industrial trash bins with bear-resistant cans in areas where there are restaurants and apartment complexes.

For the first time, people who improperly dispose of their trash will be fined instead of being issued warnings. Fines for a first offense range from $50 to $300; they're up to $600 for a second offense.

Phillips said that's not enough. People who live in neighborhoods frequented by bears need to be required to use bear-resistant trash containers.

Paul Jenkins of Eagle River keeps a shotgun loaded with birdshot within easy reach to prevent a 300-pound black bear that hangs around his house from killing his dog. The bear has never been aggressive to Jenkins but has bluff-charged some of the neighbors walking their dogs.

"I am not going to let him eat my Schnauzer," he said.

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