After 20 years of enticing bears into a remote compound tucked away in a little visited corner of the Yentna River valley, retired Anchorage school teacher Charlie Vandergaw said last fall he was ready to end his bear-taming shenanigans.
Filmmaker Richard Terry, the man to whom Vandergaw made the statement, didn't know whether to believe it.
Now skeptical state officials have taken action to make sure it happens. They have charged the 70-year-old Vandergaw with 20 counts of illegally feeding game. Also charged were two friends accused of assisting him.
The criminal misdemeanor charges, filed by the state Department of Law on Friday in Palmer, cover bear feedings from May 10 to Sept. 19 last year at "Bear Haven," Vandergaw's remote summer home north of the community of Alexander Creek.
Charging documents, however, note the bear feeding there has been going on for far longer than a year. In interviews with Alaska State Troopers last fall, those documents say, "Vandergaw acknowledged that he was feeding the bears at his cabin and stated that he couldn't immediately stop. Vandergaw admitted to feeding the bears for the past 20 years."
By this time most years, Vandergaw would again be out at Bear Haven putting out dog food for the bears that are like family to him, but not this year. The state seized his single-engine Bush plane after serving the search warrants in September. They have been holding it ever since, making travel to the compound more difficult and costly for Vandergaw.
And among the charges filed Friday was a warning shot for anyone who might choose to help Vandergaw with his bears.
Along with charging Vandergaw, the state also charged his friend Terry Cartee, a board member of the Alaska Airmen's Association. Cartee faces one count of feeding game and a second charge of committing a wildlife crime while licensed as an Alaska big-game guide.
According to charging documents, troopers have evidence "Cartee purchased dog food 10 different times at Sam's Club between May 19, 2008, and July 3, 2008" and flew it to Bear Haven for Vandergaw. Neither Cartee nor Vandergaw could be reached for comment.
Vandergaw's attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald of Anchorage, issued a statement saying he found the charges against his client "curious as to both timing and substance."
"In 2008,'' he claimed, "the activities complained of at 'Bear Haven' ceased permanently.''
10,000 POUNDS OF DOG FOOD
At least once before, Vandergaw has made a similar claim. In 2005, he told Trooper wildlife Sgt. Tory Oleck of Palmer that the bear feeding was over.
"I had his word that he was not feeding the bears, " Oleck said.
When Oleck that year asked about all the bears still hanging around Bear Haven -- enough bears behaving enough like pets to make the veteran trooper extremely uncomfortable -- Vandergaw responded by saying "What do I do? I'm getting older. I enjoy these bears. This (feeding) is how it all got started, but now the feeding has stopped and the bears just don't want to go away."
Oleck said he left Vandergaw's place convinced the former Dimond High School wrestling coach wanted to be done with feeding bears, but Vandergaw was still at it heavily last year. Charging documents say troopers can document more than 10,000 pounds of dog food being flown to Bear Haven. There are no dogs there.
Vandergaw is plainly shown feeding dog food to bears in "Stranger Among Bears,'' a television show that aired on the Animal Planet cable channel only weeks ago. Terry, the filmmaker, documented Vandergaw not only feeding bears but playing with them, taming them and training them.
Terry spent most of the summer of '08 at Bear Haven with Vandergaw despite being bitten by a bear while there. He compiled hundreds of hours of video of Vandergaw cavorting with both black and grizzly bears. It was not, however, the first time Vandergaw had appeared on film.
After the Anchorage Daily News reported on Bear Haven in early 2007, Vandergaw invited in reporters from the Australian version of "60 Minutes" and ABC News. State authorities saw that as flouting an Alaska law that bans the feeding of bears at the same time officials in Anchorage and elsewhere were citing people for feeding bears that simply got into poorly contained garbage.
There wasn't a lot the state could do about Vandergaw, however. They could cite him under the terms of the law as it existed in 2007, but the fines were so small they didn't even cover the cost of flying out to the compound to write the citations.
That changed last year after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game convinced the Legislature to make the intentional feeding of bears a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail. Vandergaw, in turn, tried to sidestep the new law by obtaining a hunting permit to bait bears.
SPREADING HIS STORY
In Terry's film, Vandergaw, a former bear hunter, admits his affection for the bears, some of which have been returning to his compound for generations. Charging documents indicate Vandergaw wanted the story of his life with these bears told.
"Vandergaw," according to those documents, "contracted with Firecracker Films, a British film company, to make an exclusive documentary. The film company paid Vandergaw and his associate, Carla Garrod, owner of C&C Bear Imagery, a total of $70,000 plus expenses for making the film."
Garrod, an Anchorage real-estate appraiser and regular visitor to Bear Haven, was charged with five counts of feeding game at Bear Haven. In the cabins and sheds there, the charging documents said, troopers "found 1,040 pounds of dog food'' when search warrants were served last year.
Vandergaw admitted to a Daily News reporter in 2007 that he was food-conditioning bears using dog food. He has never denied creating the situation at Bear Haven, where more than a dozen bears -- both black and grizzly -- sometimes congregate waiting to be fed.
The charges filed against Vandergaw, Garrod and Cartee document what can only be called a large-scale feeding program. They state says records show along with the 2,800 pounds of dog food purchased by Cartee, Garrod bought another 7,300 pounds, plus some 844 pounds of Wal-Mart cookies.
The cookies were a special treat Garrod regularly took to Bear Haven to feed the animals, according to friends. Her lawyer, Brent Cole, issued a statement saying she committed no crimes and that the prosecution occurred "to pacify certain elements of our community." He wouldn't elaborate.
It is known that the Fish and Game had been pressing troopers to shut down Bear Haven. State wildlife biologists contend that feeding bears is inherently dangerous -- no matter how long Vandergaw has managed to get away with it or how safe he might make it look.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.