Bear encounters create dispute over trail status

Megan Holland
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

In the aftermath of a bear attack in Far North Bicentennial Park, state wildlife biologists continued Wednesday urging city officials to close the Rover's Run trail to prevent more human-bear encounters.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said the city has no intention of doing that, arguing that people should use their own judgment rather than the city stepping in and declaring the trail off-limits.

"It really becomes a good common sense thing for the public to use their good common sense when an area has been identified ... when there's potential danger there," he said.

The city has closed Rover's Run the past two summers after two bear maulings in the summer of 2008 and continuing concerns over bear encounters there. Other government agencies that manage land in Alaska, including state and federal parks, regularly have closed trails or sections of parks because of bear danger.

Black bears and the occasional grizzly are seen from time to time on trails throughout Bicentennial Park, as well as other areas of the Hillside, but Rover's Run has been problematic the past three summers. Spawning salmon in the South Fork of Campbell Creek have long attracted bears, and the narrow, bumpy dirt trail, which winds alongside the creek, can make it easy for people to surprise the animals.

Rick Sinnott, the Anchorage area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, thinks people should avoid Rover's Run, and said he's having trouble understanding the city's rationale for not posting signs making the trail off-limits.

"The city closes trails all the time," he said.

Tuesday morning, a 45-year-old man riding his bike to work was attacked by a grizzly sow with a cub at the east end of the trail. The bicyclist suffered a torn ear and puncture wounds to his calf, but was able to ride to the Alaska Native Medical Center for treatment. Sinnott said the biker surprised the bear, and that Fish and Game has no plans to go after the animal because it wasn't acting aggressively.

Two people were mauled in separate incidents on Rover's Run in the summer of 2008, including a 15-year-old mountain biker who was badly mauled by a grizzly near where this week's attack occurred.

The 2008 attacks led the city to immediately close the trail. That decision carried over to last year when the trail was shut down again for the summer, Sinnott said.

This year, under Sullivan, who took office last summer, the city changed course. Sinnott said he was in talks with the city to again close Rovers' Run starting June 10 but that didn't happen.

Sullivan said in an interview Wednesday that he thinks a bright colored warning sign telling people of the recent encounter is adequate. He also says the city doesn't have the ability to enforce a closure.

Sinnott said not closing the trail is confounding to him. "Ship Creek Trail is closed because of an erosion problem," he said. Similarly, he said, a foot bridge across Campbell Creek near where this week's attack occurred has had a sign saying it was closed until further notice, Sinnott said. It's ironic, he said, that the city would close the bridge but now choose to leave Rover's Run open.

"It seems like an ideological argument, 'We're not going to let the bears push us around,' " he said.

"Some people have the theory that if you cede territory to the bears, then the bears will get bolder, and they'll take it over.

"There's no reason to believe that," he said. The bears are drawn to city streams because that's where salmon are, he said. Putting people in their paths won't necessarily make them go away, he said. Closing the trail won't necessarily keep people off it, he noted. But it does send a strong message that there's potential danger in the area, he said.

There is an idea to build a new trail 100 to 200 yards south of Rover's Run so trail users can still cross the park and link up to its northwest corner, and Sinnott said he supports that.

A recent telephone survey conducted for Fish and Game found 63 percent of Anchorage residents say it is acceptable to have brown bears in Far North Bicentennial park. The survey found 89 percent said they support temporary closures of trails at times when the risk of encountering a brown bear in the area is high.

State and federal land managers in Alaska regularly close trails when there are potential dangers, spokespeople say.

Tom Harrison, superintendent of the Chugach State Park, said it's a subjective call. "If we anticipate a high-risk situation we will probably err on the one side (of caution)," he said.

"However," he said, "there are bears in the woods."

This year, the park hasn't closed any parts or trails because of bears, Harrison said. But last year, it closed an area of Bird Point because of reports of an aggressive bear. The Albert Loop near the Eagle River Nature Center has been permanently closed in the summer for years because of a history of maulings, he said.

Morgan Warthin, spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Alaska, said closing decisions are made by park superintendents. On Tuesday, a backcountry unit in Denali National Park was temporarily closed because a bear ripped a tent, she said.

Sullivan said city parks are not state or national parks.

"Do we want our urban parks to be brown bear sanctuaries or do we want them to be places where people can recreate? ... I think (that) is what the purpose of these parks were when they were created, as well as the trails."

Sullivan said the city needs to critically examine the state's effort to reintroduce salmon into the city's waterways. Those fish, he said, are bringing bears into the city.

"At what point do you say, this is not good policy? This is a city first. It's not a wildlife viewing area. It's not a sanctuary. It is first and foremost an urban environment," he said.

Find Megan Holland online at or call 257-4343.

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