Brown bear seems to have put off winter nap, roaming Hillside

Rosemary Shinohara

At least one insomniac grizzly bear has set its own timetable in Anchorage this winter and is still roaming Hillside trails this week after most bears are believed to be snug in their dens.

"Every single morning there are tracks," said Nordic Skiing Association's John Hemmeter, who is out grooming the Hillside cross-country ski trails by about 7 a.m. most days.

The bear walked onto the popular Hillside Loop near a connecting trail known as Coach's Cut-off on Thursday night, Hemmeter said -- just one visible excursion.

But on Wednesday, a bear -- thought to be the same one -- tromped all over the Hillside trails groomed for skiing.

The bear doesn't just leave prints. It has scratched its back and left brown residue on light poles, and sometimes lies on the trail, said Hemmeter. "You'll see these big brown areas like right in the trail."

There have been few actual sightings, but Patrice Weinmeister, who live off Elmore Road south of Abbott, said on Monday, she saw a brown bear's rear-end and tail heading into Ruth Arcand Park, which has an equestrian center and horse trails on the south side of Abbott Road.

She hunts, and knows bears, Weinmeister said. She also rides horses.

She could see the bear from her driveway. "It startled me. I assumed he had denned up by now. I was like, 'Oh great.' I didn't go on a trail ride."

She said a bear knocked over her neighbor's garbage container one day recently, too, and left paw prints behind.

While it's rare for bears to be spending so much time on Anchorage ski trails this late in the year, it's not uncommon for brown bears to still be prowling around at the end of November, though most have hit their dens in late October or early November, said assistant area biologist Dave Battle of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Battle checked out paw prints on Hillside trails Monday, and said he saw sign of only one bear, probably medium-sized. "I'd guess it's not more than 400 to 500 pounds," Battle said.

A patron at Hilltop Ski Area, right next to the nordic ski trails, told a Hilltop employee that she'd seen three bears Monday on the Hillside Loop cross-country trail, said Hilltop CEO Steve Remme. There have been no signs of bears near the Hilltop chalet in late November, he said, though Hilltop caught a grizzly on a surveillance camera on Oct. 31.

Fish and Game officials said they only have evidence of one still out in the Abbott Road area.

Sean Farley, a Fish and Game biologist who has studied the habits and tracings left by brown bears from Eagle River to Indian, said a brown bear might stay out longer because of its physical condition. "A bear out could be in really poor shape or really great shape," he said.

A bear that is in exceptional shape and has a food source might feel not need to den yet. And a bear that's in poor shape may not have accumulated enough fat to keep it healthy while hibernating, or it could be injured or sick, Farley said.

Battle searched for sign of a moose carcass or other meat that would keep a bear in the area, but didn't find anything.

Fish and Game is cautioning skiers to use extra care when out early or late in the day, when the bear tends to move around, Battle said. And for residents of the area, "It's not safe to put the garbage outside" early, he said.

Service High ski coach Jan Buron said his high school skiers and people he coaches through his Alaska Winter Stars program are skiing in bigger groups than usual, and avoiding parts of the trails without lights. .

"I don't think it's super-safe," he said.

An adult in one of his skiing groups reported seeing a black bear sleeping next to a trail within the last couple of weeks, Buron said.

In two runs around the Hillside Loop recently, a group of his skiers saw no bear tracks on the first lap, but tracks on their second time around.

"I think the bear is someplace not too far from us," Buron said.

Hemmeter, the groomer, had a similar experience. He said he recently groomed a trail, came back around for a second pass and found fresh paw prints.

"If the tracks look too fresh I leave the area," he said.

This is the first time in about five winters of grooming Hemmeter has seen "bear activities on the trail, non-stop, every day for two or three weeks."

In his studies, Farley found that 15 to 20 brown bears use Far North Bicentennial Park, which encompasses the Hillside ski trails, at some time of the year.

The bears den in winter in anything from tree roots to a hole in the ground to a cave, Farley said.

Pregnant sows tend to den above the tree line, where they can see long distances, he said. Otherwise, brown bears den in lots of places from the flats to the mountains, he said.

As to what's sleeping in Bicentennial Park: "There could be a handful, or none."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.

Reader photos: 2011 bear sightings
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