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Owners of urban chickens battle predators

Michelle Theriault Boots
Chickens search their pen for feed at the Williams family home along Rabbit Creek in South Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Regan Williams, with sons Chance, 10, left, and Austin, 13, checks 8-foot by 8-foot fence panels installed in back of the chicken coop. Williams plans to add electric rope fencing outside the panels as well as plastic fencing overhead to discourage the predators that have been gobbling his chickens.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Regan Williams installs electric rope fencing outside the wire fence enclosing the main chicken pen at his home along Rabbit Creek as son Chance, 10, cradles a chicken Wednesday in South Anchorage. Williams has been fighting a mostly losing battle to bears, lynx, hawks and owls that eat his chickens.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
A few feathers are all that remain of a chicken after a recent raid by a predator on the Williams coop.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Electric rope fencing outside wire fencing may deter larger predators from breaking into a pen and coop at the Williams family home along Rabbit Creek in South Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Regan Williams is a backyard chicken keeper living deep in bear country.

Williams, his wife and two sons live on forested acreage nestled in the Chugach Mountains in South Anchorage. Rabbit Creek rushes through the property.

For a year now, Williams has been fighting a mostly losing battle with the bears, lynx, hawks and owls that have been gobbling his chickens with upsetting regularity.

"We're under siege," he said.

In the second summer since the municipality made it legal to keep backyard chickens, poultry abounds in Anchorage backyards. And because chickens and their feed act as a powerful bear attractant, more chickens have meant more human-bear conflict.

Fish and Game wildlife biologist Dave Battle said he gets between two and six calls each week from chicken owners with bear troubles.

Many residents are distraught to see animals they consider pets eaten by predators.

Williams has tried or considered trying just about every idea to keep the abundant local wildlife out of his coop: A fence. A heavier-duty fence. Hazing with air guns. Bear spray. Midnight patrols. Motion-sensor-activated Halloween mannequins. (Williams' 13-year-old son came up with that one.)

Nothing worked. Last summer, Williams, a state prosecutor, lost nearly 50 chickens to various predators.

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "Everything is destroyed, ripped out, feathers. You feel guilty, like, sorry I couldn't protect you."

Williams vowed this summer would be different. He fortified the perimeter of the coop and chicken run with a stronger fence. After a bear raid in early June wiped out a dozen chickens in a single night, Williams and his older son began sleeping in a tent on top of the coop, armed with rifles, to try to catch any midnight visitor in the act.

Williams' wife expressed concern about "sleeping on top of the bait."

One night they caught a glimpse of a brown bear trying to break into the coop. The bear pulled down the fence with a paw.

"It was just a monster bear," Williams said.

The bear ran away but Williams decided he needed even stronger measures to protect his flock. He started work on an 8-foot-tall fence that will eventually wrap the entire concrete chicken coop and outdoor area with at least three strands of charged electric wire.

So far, the portion of electric fence they've installed seems to be working.

"Had I known, that's the first thing I would have picked up," Williams said.

MORE CHICKENS, MORE PROBLEMS

It's clear that more people are keeping chickens in Anchorage, say the Fish and Game biologists who respond to calls about human-wildlife and poultry-wildlife encounters.

An employee at Alaska Mill and Feed said that since the municipality legalized backyard chicken-keeping in 2011, the store has doubled the amount of space it devotes to coop supplies and has boosted its inventory to keep up with demand. Enthusiasts say demand is so strong that it's hard even to get chickens in Alaska; many would-be chicken keepers have to order them from out of state.

Williams' flock of 100 is at the extreme end of Anchorage's backyard chicken boom. Residents on lots bigger than 40,000 square feet are allowed to have one animal for every thousand square feet, according to Jillanne Inglis, a land use plan reviewer with the city. According to tax records, Williams' lot is about 50,000 square feet, which means he may have more chickens than permitted, although he says he has an agreement with his neighbor to allow his birds on their property as well.

And with his luck, he said, his chicken count may be down to 50 before the summer is over.

Up to five small animals can be kept on lots of 6,000 square feet or less, according to the municipal code.

If you're going to keep chickens in Anchorage, electric fencing is the best way to keep bears out, says Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane. But the electric fence has to be strong enough to deter a bear.

On July 2, a black bear was shot because of chickens in Eagle River, Coltrane said.

"The homeowner said she had numerous bears in her chickens last year and then got an electric fence, unfortunately she got one strand of electric fencing, which is insufficient for bears," Coltrane wrote in an email.

This summer, Coltrane said, chicken owners are starting to install electric fences but, unfortunately, many are putting in the wrong kind.

Battle recommends at least four strands of wire. That makes it much harder for bears to slip under or over them. One wire won't cut it. A robust electric fence setup from Alaska Mill and Feed might cost you $200 to $300, said the store's retail manager, David Horvath.

Chicken keepers in areas of prime bear habitat like South Anchorage and Eagle River tend to attract the most bears. But bears and other predators can be anywhere in Anchorage, Battle said.

Peggy Wilcox keeps four chickens in the yard of her home in Bootlegger Cove in downtown Anchorage and broadcasts video of their lives on the Internet at chickenbungalow.com. She said even her urban coop attracts predators.

"Our coop is under a tree with claw marks in it from a black bear," she said.

If you live in Alaska, you live in bear country no matter how urban you are, Wilcox said.

So far she hasn't lost a chicken to a predator, though magpies are regular harassers and she see foxes on the mud flats.

Chicken owners anywhere in Anchorage should think carefully about the risk of luring bears into their yards, Wilcox said. The outcome for many bears habituated to food from people is death at the hands of a homeowner or a Fish and Game biologist.

"When you bait a bear you are killing that bear," Wilcox said. "Whether it's your garbage or your chickens or your salmon carcasses."

CHICKEN FORTRESS

When a bear ate two of their chickens last summer, Irene and Sean Meadows tried a temporary bear fence similar to the ones sold for backcountry campers. The Meadowses live on the road to the Eagle River Nature Center, on land that presses up against the wilds of Chugach State Park.

"I guess we should have known," Irene Meadows said. "We had precautions but not enough."

Last July, her husband came home from work and noticed blood in the coop. A black bear was nearby. He tried to scare it away but the bear lunged at him. He shot it before it could come closer.

The couple ended up installing a two-strand electric fence. They have a backup and even a solar-powered battery, just in case.

The chickens are in a "fortress" now, she said. They haven't lost one to bears since.

"It's the electric fence," Meadows said. "That's the only thing I feel like you can do."

After the first attack, they thought of giving up their chicken hobby. But their family had grown attached. Their chickens have a Facebook page, where their three children post pictures and stories about them.

"(The chickens) are my pets," she said. "They are like babies to me."

Williams too has considered whether keeping so many chickens in such a wild place is wise -- or fair.

"Every time, you do a gut check: Is it time to get rid of everything and be done?" he said.

But like the Meadowses, the Williamses love their chickens. They'd miss the steady stream of speckled eggs, which the family shares with neighbors and co-workers.

Only time will tell whether their latest efforts will be enough to keep the bears, hawks, owls and lynx out of the "Rabbit Creek Free-Rangers" coop.

"I'm still losing the war," Williams said. "But we're hopefully getting close."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Video: Demonstration of how bears respond to electric fences
Audio slide show: Raising chickens in Alaska bear country
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News