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Biologists dart bear near Park Strip

Craig Medred

A block and a half off Delaney Park Strip, in the shadow of the glass towers that dominate the Anchorage skyline, biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game darted an adult male black bear Friday afternoon.Summer has arrived.

Cooler than average temperatures and fresh snow falling high in the mountains above the city may have left some people a little confused about the season, but the bears have figured it out.

North, south, east and west - all around town and even in it - there have been bear sightings this week, according to Fish and Game biologists Rick Sinnott, and Jessy Coltrane, Chugach State Park superintendent Tom Harrison and a bunch of residents.

Bears in Bayshore. Bears on the Coastal Trail. Bears in Eagle River. Bears in Potter Valley. Bears in Muldoon.

While Sinnott and Coltrane on Friday were chasing one black bear east from Point Woronzof, past Westchester Lagoon and smack into downtown, Harrison was trying to decide what to do about another that huffed at a hiker on the Turnagain Arm Trail just south of the city.

Park rangers thought for a time that bear might have been trying to guard a moose kill or some other food source, Harrison said, but "there wasn't any kill."

"There wasn't any weird behavior" either, he said.

As it turned out, it was a black bear sow with three tiny cubs that has been seen regularly the last week or so in various Potter Valley neighborhoods.

Faced with a surprise encounter with a hiker, she made the normal black bear noises to warn people to stay away from her young. Harrison said park personnel observed the bear until she and the cubs wandered off into the woods, and then put up some green posters to warn hikers they are in bear country.

Bear country is Anchorage, and Anchorage is bear country, according to studies completed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game over the past several years.

Both black and brown bears wander in, out and around town with regularity.

As the darted and tranquilized downtown bear dozed in the back of a state pickup truck, Coltrane talked to one member of a curious crowd of several dozen onlookers who'd gathered to watch the bear chase. While it was unusual to catch a bear in a backyard near 12th Avenue, she said, it isn't odd to see them only a few blocks away.

The animals, she said, regularly use the greenbelt along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and the tide flats of Knik Arm to move north along the edge of the city from the wilds of Kincaid Park and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in the south to the wilds of the Fort Richardson Military Reservation in the north.

The 150- to 200-pound bear she and Sinnott darted wasn't far off track - just far enough to attract a gang of curious spectators, a few television cameras and danger. It is Fish and Game policy to try to keep bears out of dense-packed urban areas because of the risk one of the animals could end up feeling cornered and trapped, lash out, and hurt someone.

With the aid of a half dozen or more members of the Anchorage Police Department in three or four marked cars and at least two unmarked cars, the biologists managed to chase this bear into a fenced backyard at 1123 F Street and tranquilize it.

There were only a couple tense moments.

One came when the bear seemed to have disappeared; it turned out to have ducked out of sight under a deck. Later, the darted animal slid down a tree in the backyard of the home, leaving claw marks most of the way.

After that, there were just a lot of Anchorage Police officers standing around, taking camera-phone pictures of the catch and waiting for Sinnott to get the tranquilizer that would put the immobilized animal to sleep until he and Coltrane could haul it out of town.

Bears that get into trouble get three chances. They are fitted with ear tags or collars after their first encounter with humans. If there is another encounter, the tags or collars put biologists on notice of a bear with a fondness for civilization. A third encounter usually results in the bear being killed or captured and sent away to a research facility.

The bear Friday was mainly getting a ride out of town in the back of a pickup with a dead moose calf. The calf had been killed earlier in the day by a dog in a yard in Eagle River. Sinnott and Coltrane were debating whether to leave the dead calf as food for the bear when they dropped it off, but they wondered if that could give the animal the wrong message:

Go to town, get into trouble, find yourself treated to what is - for a bear - a gourmet meal?

Bears love tasty moose calves. And that is yet another reason for Anchorage residents to be alert.

While black bears have been roaming the Coastal Trail and other lowland areas looking for fresh greens, grizzly bears have begun prowling the Anchorage Hillside looking for calves. It is a good idea to know what to do if you encounter one of the animals.

Fish and Game offers a free guide to "Living in Harmony with Bears.'' It is available at the Fish and Game office on Raspberry Road or online.

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

Photos: Urban bears
By CRAIG MEDRED