A large, healthy and by all accounts magnificent grizzly bear -- an animal that would qualify as an endangered species in most states outside of Alaska -- is dead at the hands of man along the Turnagain Arm trail on the outskirts of the 49th state's largest city.
Let the debates begin. There's a little something here for everyone: gun rights, animals rights, public safety, personal safety, and the strange twists of fate.
We can start with the latter. The bear should have had a pretty good chance of surviving this encounter with 40-year-old Chris Ayers and his 5.45 x 39mm semi-automatic rifle.
Poll 100 big-game guides in Alaska on the best round with which to kill a grizzly bear, and not one of them will name this 1970s-era, Soviet knockoff of the 5.56 NATO, a high-velocity .22-caliber cartridge.
The design goal for both of these military cartridges was to create the lightest possible round useful on the battlefield. The U.S. Army wanted to get weight down to up the mobility of soldiers laden down with ammunition. The cartridge replaced the .308, a significantly larger .30-caliber, and there was much debate at the time as to the adequacy of the new round.
That debate continues. Some disparage these .22-caliber-size cartridges as "varmit rounds," but the 5.56 NATO and the just slightly less powerful Soviet 5.45 have proven themselves adequate man-killers or man-maimers on the battlefield.
A wounded and disabled enemy is in some ways better than a dead one. You tie up enemy manpower trying to take care of their own wounded.
Bears, of course, don't care about the wounded, sometimes come in packages three or four times the size of a man, and are notorious for refusing to terminate attacks after being shot again and again and again.
Even in the hands of an expert marksman, the 5.56 NATO or its Soviet counterpart would be inadequate for bears, but this gun wasn't in the hands of an expert marksmen. Ayers fired 13 rounds from his AK-74 at the bear at close range and mostly missed.
One of those involved in the aftermath of the shooting said it appears two, maybe three, bullets hit the bear.
Spray and pray
The shooting technique here is what would be termed "spray and pray." Spray and pray is not thought of highly. Targets -- paper or live -- are easy things to miss. No matter how big the target, there is always a lot more open air around it.
But sometimes prayer, or luck for those of you who don't believe in religion, works. In this case, it certainly did. A bullet somehow managed to penetrate the formidable skull of the bear and kill it. This is no small feat for a .22-caliber bullet. Far bigger bullets have been known to deflect off bear skulls.
This one didn't. The bear died. Good.
The animal was one of my neighbors. I live just over a ridge from where the bear was shot. It roamed through the valley outside of my home. It was not the only grizzly there. A pair of 1-year-olds were on the deck of a neighbor not long ago. They were later spotted with their mother, thankfully trying to keep them out of trouble.
Neighborhood wildlife makes the area in which I live a better place. Yes, the animals can be dangerous, both bears and moose. A moose kicked one neighbor right into the hospital. A bear left another with a huge mess to clean up after she unloaded a can of pepper spray to get the animal out of her house. A third neighbor shot and wounded a home-invading grizzly in his garage.
Yet another neighbor and I spent a somewhat tense fall morning tracking that wounded animal through the brush. We gave up when it became clear the bear wasn't seriously wounded. It had stopped bleeding and it was moving efficiently through some difficult terrain.
Bears are tough animals. In all likelihood, that one survived. That was a good thing, too.
I'd like all bears to live long, happy lives except for those that approach people. Those bears need to die. If this bear charged Ayers and died for doing so, good. But even if it just sort of walked up to him, OK.
Bears that approach people are at some point going to hurt people, possibly those small innocent people called children. Bears need to understand people are always to be avoided. Bears that don't understand that -- bears that don't run or hide when they encounter people -- need to go to the big bear den in the sky.
Heavily trafficked trail
So much for animal rights. Animals are animals, and people are people. The former aren't entitled to the latter's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
All of which sort of brings to the surface here the one serious issue surrounding this shooting: life, as in those of others. This is the public safety issue.
We are probably all lucky the bear was shot on the Turnagain Arm Trail on a Sunday morning. That might be among the least busy times on a trail that can sometimes be busy. Not Tony-Knowles-Coastal-Trail-busy, but busy enough that if you need to make a pit stop, you better do it fast or get well back in the bushes off the trail because there is sure to be traffic coming promptly from one direction or another.
That no one complained to Chugach State Park officials about stray bullets whistling past, or showed up at a local hospital with wounds, is another lucky twist of fate. This whole incident could have been a lot worse than just a dead bear.
Why Ayers didn't just pepper-spray the bear instead of loosing a volley of gunfire is unknown. I have been unable to reach him. Other news organizations have reported they were told by Alaska State Troopers that his name wasn't public information. It is. He was involved in removing, so to speak, a valuable piece of state property -- a 500- to 600-pound grizzly bear. The hide alone will no doubt sell for hundreds of dollars at the state's annual fur auction.
What details Ayers might be able to add to the story at this point, I don't know. Those who interviewed him shortly after the shooting said he was badly shaken. People under extreme stress often have fractured memories of what happened. But still, there are questions I would like to ask Ayers, starting with the one as to why he didn't just quietly back down the trail after seeing the bear. He apparently saw its hind end and yelled "hey bear,'' to alert it to his presence.
In a situation like this, it is far wiser to act like a bug in the breeze and silently fly away. A bear that never knew you were there won't bother you. A bear startled by a shout from behind at a short distance might do anything. Ayers say this one charged, or at least came toward him. That raises other questions it would be nice to ask Ayers.
Was he carrying pepper spray? Does he have pepper spray? Is he aware of its now well-documented effectiveness? If so, does he simply think the AK-74 a better bear defense? Was he even carrying the AK-74 for bear defense? Is he aware the AK-74 is not the gun to which to equip yourself if you're going to confront grizzly bears? Was this his first bear encounter? Does he have suggestions for others who might meet bears in and around Anchorage?
Just so you know, they can be found just about everywhere. A state study some years ago that tracked radio-collared bears found them sometimes using the city's greenbelts to travel between the mountains and the coast.
We live in bear land. It regularly proves deadly for the bears and sometimes for people. Two hikers in 1995 were killed by a grizzly along the McHugh Creek Trail not far from where Ayers killed this bear. Troopers have ruled his shooting of the bear justified and thus legal. You cannot argue with that given the history.
I have my own history with bears. I was run over by a grizzly because I didn't shoot her. I have a claw mark my jaw line from one of her front feet. I eventually shot her. She had my leg in her mouth at the time. I have stitches from that wound, too. And I have the knowledge not all charges are bluffs, even if most of them are. I have been bluff-charged quite a few times. The problem is that the real charge and the bluff-charge look alike.
Some have criticized Ayers for shooting because they are convinced this charge was a bluff. Let those who have been mauled by a bear after being charged criticize those who shoot a bear that appears to be charging. Everyone else should just shut up. And I, for one, am not going to criticize. Maybe some of the others in a pretty small group of people who've been charged, bitten and survived will choose to do so. I don't know.
But they are really the only ones worth listening to on this part of the subject.
And there's hardly anyone worth listening to on what has become a stupid and side-tracking debate about whether reporter Ben Anderson should have called Ayers' AK-74 an "assault-style rifle." It is an assault-style rifle.
End of story.
It is what it is, and it's legal to carry. If you want something of substance to debate, join the discussion about whether the gun is adequate for protecting yourself from bears. I don't think it is. The .454 Casull with a 4 5/8-inch barrel that I used to shoot a grizzly off my leg is more powerful, a lot easier to carry, and less unsettling to others on the trail.
Many people won't notice you're carrying that weapon. An AK-74, on the other hand, is easily visible, like any other long gun, and might unsettle a few. Not to mention its ballistic inadequacies. Any of the large-caliber rifles -- start at the .350 and work up -- are better. So is a short-barreled shotgun.
A short-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun is lighter than an AK-74, easier to carry, and about three-times as powerful. Not to mention it shoots big, bone-breaking slugs instead of squirrel-hunting-size bullets. A 1983 Forest Service study of the best weapons for killing charging grizzly bears noted the size of that shotgun slug. The gun itself was marked down against such weapons as the elephant-stopping .458 Magnum rifle because of the low ballistic energy of the slug. But the ballistics have changed over the decades. You can now buy some very potent slug loads.
Or pepper spray. An 8-ounce can weighs less than a pound and costs less than $50. An AK-74 weighs 7 pounds or so and costs more than 10 times as much. If you accidentally hit someone with bullets from an AK-74, you could kill them. If you accidentally hit someone with pepper spray, you will only make them extremely uncomfortable.
I'm not telling anyone what to carry. But instead of stupid debates about whether Ayers should or shouldn't have been packing, or whether a 5.45 round can or can't kill a bear (it obviously can, but a determined old man with a knife once proved he could kill a bear, too), or whether the term "assault-style rifle" somehow smears the reputations of all semi-automatics, maybe we should all be having a discussion about the sensible things to do on a heavily traveled public trail.
I've heard bullets in the air overhead. It's not a good sound. But then again, being attacked by a bear isn't a pleasant experience either.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com