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Call of the wild: pouncing on reports of Anchorage’s big wild life

Rick Sinnott
Alaska Department of Fish and Game area biologist Jessy Coltrane and a moose baby. Rick Sinnott photo

Most people get to the office and pour themselves a cup of coffee. Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, grabs a cup of coffee and, if it’s summer, answers her first bear or moose call of the day. Some days the call comes before the java. Some days she never makes it into the office, unless you consider her pickup truck her office.

One day in mid-June, her first call was from Laura Krip in Muldoon, but Coltrane was chasing bears and moose in east Anchorage and couldn’t check her office messages until after noon. Krip’s message, now some six hours old, said she and her 6-year-old daughter had just found themselves nose to nose with a grizzly bear.

Krip has walked her dogs in a wooded area along Chester Creek, just east of Muldoon Road, one or more times a day for years. By her estimate she’s walked those trails “thousands of times.” That day was different.

To understand how unusual her experience was, it helps to know a few details. It happened about 7 a.m. Sounds of the city’s morning rush-hour traffic filtered through the trees. Krip had five dogs with her: a large Alaskan malamute, a Labradoodle, and three ancient huskies. She was also accompanied by her daughter Willow, who held the leashes of two huskies, each weighing about 100 pounds. Following her mother, Willow chirped a stream-of-consciousness monologue to her husky sidekicks.

'Willow, there's a bear'

Krip was letting some of the dogs off leash, one at a time. Bending over to unhook Chinook, the malamute, she happened to glance over her shoulder at her daughter, trailing close behind. Close behind Willow – Krip estimated about five feet back – was a grizzly bear.

“Willow, there’s a bear,” Krip said, no doubt conveying additional information with the timbre of her voice and the whites of her eyes. It was important information a 6-year-old would be inclined to heed without question.

Krip said the bear had obviously been following them – for how long, she didn’t know. As she stared into the bear’s dark eyes she thought it looked “kind of curious.” But the bear wasn’t deterred by her stare. It kept advancing towards Willow. “The bear was closer to her than I was,” Krip said.

Experts recommend standing your ground when approached by a curious or even a potentially predatory bear. Krip wasn’t prepared to stand her ground with her 6-year-old daughter. “I dropped the leashes and ran,” she admitted. She left the trail, plowing through a dense thicket of young trees, taking the shortest route to the nearest houses. Pushing Willow in front of her, Krip didn’t stop until she was safely home. Four of the dogs were on her heels. Chinook showed up five minutes later.

Krip thinks it’s possible that Chinook ran interference, but she’s not prepared to nominate him for Dog Of The Year. The five-minute delay may have given him just enough time to inspect several of the neighbors’ garbage cans. She also speculated that her daughter’s high-pitched chatter might have attracted the bear.

Krip said she carries bear spray “when I walk in the woods,” but didn’t have any with her on the bike trail. In her mind, the narrow strip of familiar greenbelt where she encountered the bear wasn’t real woods. Krip said she feels safer hiking with her dogs. They’ll often go on alert, warning of a nearby bear or moose. The most unusual aspect of her encounter was that none of her five dogs noticed a thing until the bear barged in.

Human food: the gateway drug

My best professional guess is that the bear was curious and a little too habituated to people. If this incident makes you feel warm and fuzzy, if a curious bear seems totally innocuous, think again. There’s a very thin line between curiosity and predatory behavior where bears are concerned.

More often than not, human food is the gateway drug, the one thing above others that convinces a bear that humans are not as scary as they first thought. That they can be tolerated, even examined up close.

Coltrane had heard rumbles about this particular grizzly bear before Krip’s call. For a month or more, at odd hours, the bear had been rummaging through garbage bags and dumpsters in the Muldoon area. The bear is on the small side, probably a subadult. Although it hadn’t overtly threatened anyone, its increasing boldness around people, the result of human food conditioning and subsequent habituation, had convinced Coltrane that this particular bear was a growing threat.

Coltrane has been responding to calls as quickly as possible, trying to find the young grizzly in a situation where it could be shot without endangering anyone. Because Anchorage police officers frequently cruise the neighborhood and police dispatchers often field emergency calls from residents, Coltrane has also issued an APBB – an all-points bear bulletin – asking any police officer who has the opportunity to shoot this bear.

The young grizzly isn’t the only bear roaming Muldoon neighborhoods. Several black bears are making regular visits to favorite dumpsters and other improperly stashed trash.

I’ve often described Anchorage as a giant bait bucket. Pursuing that analogy, Muldoon is the deepest corner of the bucket. Extending several miles along the east side of Anchorage, Muldoon’s bait-lined boulevards abut bear habitat that stretches to the east farther than the eye can see. Muldoon holds the sweetest bear treats this side of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park.

Not just bears

In May and June it’s not just the bears that keep Coltrane hopping. She gets as many calls about moose. Cow moose drop calves from mid-May to mid-June and the young calves are often separated from their mothers by fences, traffic and other urban hazards. Young moose calves are also vulnerable to bears. Hiding out in the city is not a surefire way to avoid the big predators.

On the same morning as Krip’s close encounter, before she got to her office, Coltrane fielded several moose calls. A caller had heard thrashing and bawling in his backyard off Upper DeArmoun Road and assumed that a bear had killed a calf, a cow, or both during the night. He wanted any carcasses hauled away so the bear wouldn’t linger and possibly defend its kill. This situation occurs as many as a dozen times each summer in Anchorage. Sometimes the bear is still there. Coltrane and her assistant, Dave Battle, spent several hair-raising minutes crawling through a dense thicket of alders looking for a dead moose. Battle’s 12-gauge shotgun was locked and loaded; Coltrane was packing a can of bear spray because her finger’s broken and bandaged. The search didn’t turn up any carcasses. A cow moose is a formidable opponent, even for a bear, and it appears that she won the skirmish.

About the time the two biologists called it quits, callers reported a couple of black bears in Muldoon. One was eating garbage and the other was rummaging through the Centennial Park campground. Coltrane and Battle never made it across town because a mail carrier called to report a calf separated from a cow in a neighborhood maze of waist-high fences. A cow with two calves had been seen in the neighborhood the day before, and he assumed this calf was one of the twins.

A moose calf can often find its mother and it isn’t likely to starve or become excessively dehydrated for several days, so Fish and Game biologists prefer to wait a few days before needlessly relegating a calf to a life of captivity. In this instance, they left the calf in a large patch of woods where the cow was last seen and asked the neighbors to keep an eye out for the calf and call them in a day or two if the family wasn’t reunited. By then the black bears were long gone.

Brown bear eating black bear

Being the Anchorage area wildlife biologist is a lot like being a firefighter. You’re on standby and whatever your immediate plans might be, the rest of your day is just a phone call away.

Coltrane and Battle arrived at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office after noon and Coltrane finally heard Krip’s adrenaline-spiked phone message. She headed for Muldoon, knowing it was too late to find the bear, but wanting to familiarize herself with the trail where Krip had encountered the bear. On the way she received a more-urgent call. A woman, who had locked herself in a bathroom, was reporting a bear in her house. Coltrane called the woman and headed for the Hillside.

Meanwhile, a grizzly bear was reported eating a black bear along the Glenn Highway near Eagle River. Coltrane asked Battle to respond to that call.

Battle said he followed directions to the dead black bear near the Hiland Correctional Facility, in a small but densely vegetated copse of trees between the frontage road and the facility’s access road. The bear had been dead about a day, judging from the number of flies and ripening odor. No grizzly bear was on scene and nothing had started consuming the dead bear. A guard from the correctional facility told Battle he’d seen a young black bear, a yearling judging from the description, running back and forth across the access road. Battle concluded that the dead bear was almost certainly its mother.

A yearling black bear is old enough to take care of itself. Battle examined the dead bear and found it had a broken shoulder. Due to its proximity to the Glenn Highway, he figured a vehicle had collided with the bear, leaving it to stagger away from the highway until it died from internal injuries. Trying to tie up loose ends, Battle rationalized that the initial caller must have seen the yearling black bear, which was reputedly “cinnamon-colored,” an uncommon color variation in the Anchorage area. Then Battle noticed the dead sow had been dragged 10 or 15 yards. Cinnamon-colored, capable of dragging a dead bear over 10 yards … sounds a lot like a grizzly bear. Battle removed the carcass to encourage the grizzly – and the cub if there was one – to leave the area.

Bear in house?

But we’ve left a woman locked in her bathroom. Trying to obtain more information over the phone, Coltrane asked the woman to describe what had happened. Clearly shaken, the caller said she’d opened several windows because it was so hot. Later, she’d heard her small dog barking at one of the open windows and found it face to face with a black bear. She grabbed the dog and ran to the bathroom with her phone.

Coltrane asked how the bear had gained entry. The woman said she didn’t know for sure if the bear was in the house, but she assumed it was because there was another open window. Coltrane was 30 minutes away; if there really was a bear in the house, the caller needed a quicker response. Coltrane asked if she had called the police. The woman hadn’t but she’d called her daughter first and thought she might have. Coltrane called an Anchorage police dispatcher and asked if an officer was nearby. A police officer checked out the house. Coltrane never heard anything more about it.

Another clear-cut case of unchecked bearanoia. There’s a touch of that going around these days, following this summer’s media coverage of the family attacked by a half-blind grizzly bear on the Kenai Peninsula, a predatory black bear near Delta Junction, and another black bear who roughed up a drunken, meat-slinging cyclist in Eklutna Valley

Signing its death warrant

Some people claim that garbage isn’t the problem, that blaming garbage for Anchorage’s increasing number of semi-habituated bears is a governmental red herring, just another way to exercise control over the public or shift the blame. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about.  

Garbage is the single most important attractant for urban black bears. Fortunately, most of the grizzly bears found in Anchorage aren’t here for the garbage, they are fishing for salmon or hunting moose calves. Minding their own business. These bears tend to avoid people and, excepting the occasional sow with young cubs, don’t constitute a big threat.  

Grizzly bears that start eating garbage and deliberately approaching people, on the other hand, are signing their death warrants. They are just too bold, too omnivorous, too unpredictable in an urban setting, too likely to strike back in defense when surprised at close range.

If you could catch Coltrane in a contemplative mood, she might confess that this is not a bad description of many of the people she talks to every day. But she’s too busy answering her phones and zigzagging back and forth across Anchorage.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com