Boost urban salmon runs, attract bears -- it's natural

June 1, 2009 

The bears were here first. Let's start there.

The archeological record indicates their ancestors probably arrived in the land now called Alaska at least 50,000 years ago. The first humans don't appear for another 35,000 or 40,000 years.

It doesn't matter.

There are no 40,000-year-old bears or 15,000-year-old people running around in Far North Bicentennial Park. There are some 60-year-old people who've spent their lives in Anchorage still using the park. If you want to get technical, they were in the park before any bear now alive. Thus, you could also argue the people were here first.

Either way the arguments are a waste of time. They don't help in resolving the matter of what to do in the here and now.

In the here and now, the Municipality of Anchorage has decided to give the Rover's Run Trail back to the bears. They've closed it to humans, arguing it's just too unsafe for bipeds to walk or ride a bike on the narrow, wooded path along Campbell Creek.

OK.

Why then just this trail?

Bears use all park trails near the creek. A friend and I chased a black bear off the Spencer Loop while mountain biking there just the other day. Personally, I've never run into a bear on Rover's Run, but I've run into a number of them on the Tour of Anchorage Trail, including one I nearly T-boned with a mountain bike after coming fast around a corner near the South Fork bridge.

There seem to be a lot more bears in that area than on Rover's, where all I've ever seen is the occasional track. But then if you are alert, you can spot the occasional track on almost any trail in the park. My personal favorites are the still-wet paw prints atop bridges.

Some longtime users say it never used to be this way. They say the park has never known the number of bears that prowl its forest now.

As a relative newbie -- I've only been riding a bike around in the Hillside woods for 25 years or so -- I'd tend to agree. But we could debate bear numbers until the bears go back into hibernation and never get anywhere. Bears are hard to count, and there are many factors that influence what we see.

Are there really more bears, or has the habitat changed so as to make bears more visible?

Are there really more bears, or have the bears simply become less wary, and thus more likely to let themselves be seen, because they haven't been hunted for decades?

Are there really more bears, or are there just more people, meaning more eyes, meaning more bear sightings, meaning more tales of bears in the park, meaning more fear of bears, meaning we believe there are more bears?

I don't want to get tangled in that spider web. Go argue bear numbers with your friends or coworkers.

I'd rather discuss the 1,500-pound walrus that lurks in the corner of the room almost unnoticed. I've been doing some number crunching. And here's what the numbers say about Campbell Creek:

From 1958 up until 1976, the king salmon run to this stream was small, something on the order of 40 to 300 fish. The average of the 15 counts done over those 19 years is about 110 fish.

Silver salmon numbers, meanwhile, were so low the Alaska Department of Fish and Game didn't often bother to try to count them. There were 22 reported in 1963. They went uncounted from then until 1986 when there were still only 99.

But by late in the 1970s, things were starting to change in Campbell Creek, as they were almost everywhere around Cook Inlet. Credit a warming climate or the closure of Cook Inlet commercial fishing that had devastated salmon runs, or both. Whatever the case, salmon returns started getting bigger almost everywhere.

In 1986, the year Campbell Creek welcomed home those 99 silvers, it saw a then-record 733 kings. That number wouldn't be matched again until the next decade, however, which is when things really began to change in earnest.

Part of this probably had to do with a crackdown on illegal fishing along the creek. Some of it obviously had to do with state silver-salmon stocking efforts in the creek.

King salmon returns, thanks in part to the former, reached 931 in 1992 and have ranged from 1,100 to a one-year low of about 600 ever since. The average return through the '90s and into the first years of the new century is approximately 800 fish -- about eight times the number in the '50s, '60s and early '70s.

Coho, meanwhile, hit the 2,312 mark in 1993, and have since ranged between 1,000 and 7,500 fish with the exception of a disastrous return of 537 in 1999.

Even if you calculate the bad year into the equation, however, the 1994 to 2003 average return for silvers is 2,535 fish, according to Fish and Game's own calculations.

This is so far in excess of historical numbers it's hard to really quantify, but consider that in the years between 1986 and 1992 when the historically depressed silver run was counted, the five data points yield an average return of about 160 fish per year. That's probably an inflation of the average run size for all those years from 1986 back to 1958, but let's start there.

Fish and Game in 2007 eliminated the spawning goal for Campbell Creek, noting the run is "predominately hatchery fish." Some 75,000 smolts are pumped into the creek around this time every year with a goal of getting about 3,500 adults back. Anglers catch some of those, but seldom more than half. The majority escape into the park.

With the escapees on the increase from an average of 160 a year to an average of 2,500 a year, we are looking at about a 15-fold jump in biomass available to bears in mid- to late-summer.

With kings going from about 100 to about 800, we are looking at approximately an eight-fold increase in biomass in early to mid-summer.

And then there is a historic red salmon run that has now been built back from almost nothing to an average of more than 600 fish per year.

We can argue all we want about whether there are more bears, especially grizzlies, in and around Anchorage than in the past. But there is no argument that there is more grizzly food. And large quantities of bear food, as we know from the problems with garbage in communities all over Alaska, are inevitably going to attract bears.

We've obviously done a good job of attracting bears here. Maybe we should close all the trails in the Campbell Creek drainage, boost the salmon runs just a bit more and turn the creek into another McNeil River.

Why make people spend all that money to fly to a remote corner of Alaska when they could view bears just a short drive from the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport?

Meanwhile, let's not kid ourselves into believing that by closing Rover's the muni has somehow made the park safer. The city chased mountain bikers, hikers and dog walkers off one trail on which they could run into a bear. There are still plenty of others.

As long as we keep luring grizzly bears into the park with a big, fat, omega-3 food attractant, that reality isn't going to change.

Two of the close encounters between grizzlies and people on Spencer Loop last year could just as easily have turned into maulings, as the two encounters on Rover's did. Will Spencer be the next trail closed?

Hopefully, before that happens someone in a position of political leadership will step up to demand we confront the issue of what is bringing so many grizzlies to town.

I love salmon as much as anyone. I understand the value of the marine nutrients they bring back to an Alaska ecosystem. From an ecological standpoint, I would love to see 1,000 kings and 5,000 silvers in Campbell Creek every year.

From a human standpoint, though, I have to wonder if it is really worth closing trails and increasing the chances for dangerous encounters between grizzlies and people everywhere in Bicentennial Park, simply to put thousands of salmon into a stretch of creek no one is allowed to fish except, of course, the bears.

Looked at this way, the whole Campbell Creek management scheme looks like little more than a beer-feeding operation, and I thought it was supposed to be against the law to feed the bears.

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

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