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Is Alaska's largest city bear-infested, as some residents seem to think?

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First of two parts. Read part two here.

Every summer people tell Michael Rasy they are seeing more mosquitoes than ever. Rasy is an entomologist who’s worked for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extensive Service for a decade.

I know the feeling. Every year, for nearly 20 years, I’ve had people tell me with complete confidence the bear population in Anchorage is increasing and that each year’s problems are worse than ever before. Instead of characterizing bear numbers as “increasing” some use the term “exploding.”

There is no scientific basis for this belief, but it is firmly entrenched in Alaskans’ collective psyche because, without a doubt, Anchorage residents are seeing more bears and reporting more bear problems. That doesn’t mean there are more bears.

Why we’ll never know for sure.

There is no scientific evidence that local populations of black and brown bears are increasing simply because nobody has ever attempted to count all the bears in the Anchorage area. It’s not as easy as you might think. In summer, most bears are hidden in the forest. In winter, when bears would be more visible from the air, they are hidden in dens.

Not very precise

Bear populations in other parts of Alaska – on the tundra or in areas with scant tree cover – have been estimated by using airplanes and radio-collars. Radio-collaring bears allows biologists to calculate the proportion of the population that isn’t seen during subsequent aerial surveys. Because researchers never see all the bears, aerial counts are multiplied by the “correction factor” to get a more accurate estimate of total numbers. These population estimates are expensive, because of the money needed to capture and collar the bears, and they may not be very precise, either.

The technique won’t work in and around Anchorage – too many trees. I mention it because estimated bear densities from remote corners of southcentral Alaska were used to extrapolate bear densities in the mountains and forested lowlands surrounding Anchorage. I inherited these estimates – about 200-300 black bears and 55-65 brown bears – and used them, for lack of anything better, when I became the wildlife manager for the Anchorage area in 1994. By “Anchorage area” I mean the area between the Knik and Portage rivers, which is mostly the Municipality of Anchorage, including Chugach State Park.

Because an extrapolation doesn’t provide any measure of confidence, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is no longer willing to provide an estimate of black or brown bear numbers in the Anchorage area. “Nobody knows” is the best estimate you’ll get.

Bears aren’t territorial, but only so many bears can live in an area before they start running out of natural foods. Established bear populations can’t increase unchecked for decades. Presumably, population estimates for the Anchorage area approached the upper end of what biologists call the “carrying capacity” of the environment.

Fermented fish guts and cow blood

In the past couple of decades a more accurate and precise method of counting bears has been developed using DNA. Visibility doesn’t matter with this technique. However, it also has a down side. Population estimates using DNA are even more expensive than those obtained using radio-collars and aircraft. For example, a DNA estimate for grizzly bears in a 2.4-million-acre study area in Montana is expected to cost $1.7 million. And researchers anticipate finding only about 40 bears. Grizzlies are a threatened species in Montana, which helps justify the expense.

The Municipality of Anchorage encompasses about 1.3 million acres, so it’s roughly half the size of the Montana study area. Fish and Game’s budget for managing all wildlife species in the Anchorage area seldom, if ever, exceeds $15,000 a year. The Montana study is focused solely on grizzlies, better known as brown bears in Anchorage. Obtaining an estimate for brown and black bears around Anchorage probably wouldn’t cost twice as much as Montana’s estimate, but including black bears would add significantly to the cost. Let’s assume a scientific population estimate for both bear species in Anchorage could cost $1 million. It is unlikely that Fish and Game will ever allocate that much money.

But that’s not the only reason a DNA population estimate is impractical in Anchorage. The DNA analysis uses hair follicles obtained from free-ranging bears. Bears are attracted to hair traps by a scent lure. If you want to attract bears, you have to grab their attention. The scent used in Montana is a putrid mix of fermented fish guts and cow blood. To investigate the source of this potentially tasty treat, bears must crawl through a barbed wire “corral,” approximately the size of a small room, which snags their hairs. Researchers in Montana plan to use 800 of these hair traps. Anchorage might only need 400, spread randomly from Far North Bicentennial Park through Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to the far corners of Chugach State Park. But who’s going to think that’s a good idea?

Several years ago, Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley collected brown bear hair from captured and dead bears and hair snagged by vegetation and glue traps near salmon-spawning streams in the Anchorage area. He used DNA to identify individual bears, but because the sampling was non-random and focused on the Anchorage Bowl, he cautioned that the results provided only a minimum population estimate. Farley found 36 individual bears over three years.

Brown bears are attracted to salmon streams in summer and fall, so it’s not surprising that so many bears were found so close to the city. That’s where salmon are. By radio-collaring brown bears, Farley also demonstrated that bears, especially males, wander widely throughout the Anchorage Bowl, Chugach State Park, and as far as the Mat-Su Valley.

Bears shot on sight

For many good reasons, we’ll never know how many bears live in the Municipality of Anchorage. But maybe we don’t need to know the exact number. Maybe for management purposes it’s good enough to know if bear numbers are increasing, decreasing, or about the same.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if we are seeing more bears, there are more bears to see. But the world isn’t as simple as that. People who complain about bears often mention the halcyon times when bears were supposedly shot on sight. Some early residents of Anchorage and Eagle River certainly shot bears with little or no provocation. In the early 1900s, when Anchorage was founded, bears were considered vermin, or at least competitors for moose and salmon.

But Anchorage had few residents before 1940. The average town dweller didn’t need to shoot bears. And by most accounts people wasted less food in the good old days. Their garbage cans didn’t overflow with leftover pizza, fried chicken and French fries. Before the 1970s there was less garbage to attract bears and fewer people to shoot them than today. The 1970s brought a new paradigm – the modern environmental movement – and many new residents who didn’t automatically regard bears as shaggy pests or a threat to their livelihood.

Even if we’ve never known the actual number of brown and black bears in the Anchorage area, Fish and Game has kept records of brown and black bears shot since 1960 and the early 1970s, respectively. More on that later.

Century of anecdotal evidence

Scientists don’t like to use anecdotal information because individual impressions are prone to preconceptions and misinterpretation. Most people who tell me there are more bears in Anchorage have lived here less than four decades. They are most familiar with what’s happening in their yard or in a favorite park or two. And memories age over time, just like muscles and organs. If we are going to use anecdotal information, let’s at least use anecdotes documented during or closer to the time period in question.

The belief that bear populations are “exploding” in Anchorage presupposes a time when bears were much less abundant. If bear numbers have increased in recent years, when were bears uncommon in Anchorage?

Thirty years ago? In May 1985 Chugach Park ranger Dale Bingham told the Anchorage Daily News that visitors were seeing brown bears “regularly” across the valley from the Eagle River Nature Center and black bears were reported just about every day.

Forty years ago? In a 1977 Fish and Game document, "The Status of Wildlife in Alaska," my predecessor as the Anchorage area biologist, Dave Harkness, summarized his experiences with bears in the mid-1970s. He wrote that black bears “exist in the West Chugach area at a moderate to high level. Present abundance is probably comparable to levels of the past several decades.” While, at that time, he believed fewer than 25 to 35 brown bears inhabited the Municipality of Anchorage, “present numbers may be only slightly reduced from levels of the past several decades” and “hunting is not believed to have had any effect on the present population levels.”

By the early 1990s, Harkness was estimating 55-65 brown bears, but I’m not aware of any evidence that bear numbers had increased. He just had a better estimate, the one extrapolated from more scientifically determined bear densities in similar habitats.

How about 60 or 70 years ago? Mary Ada Lee Peery lived near Eklutna between 1941 and 1955. According to Kristy Hollinger, who interviewed Peery: "Bears were a fairly constant presence at the (Eklutna power plant) camp -- largely due to a nearby open dump. Mary Ada used to scare them away with a slingshot. 'I don't remember how many confrontations I had with bears. My mother, when she went to take my dad his dinner, she'd make me go chase the bears away. They used to be on our roof!'"

Marjorie Cochrane documented the colorful early history of Eagle River and Chugiak in Between Two Rivers: The Growth of Chugiak-Eagle River, Alaska. She described the experiences of an early homesteader, Glenn Briggs, who operated a pig farm on lower Meadow Creek in the mid-1940s. Briggs collected leftovers from Fort Richardson mess halls, a form of recycling from the days when it was better known as “common sense.” It was an inexpensive way to feed hogs, but not without its problems. “When Glenn returned with his load of garbage,” Cochrane wrote, “the feed was spread on eating platforms for the pigs. But the platforms attracted black bears and the bears often stole not only the garbage but the pigs, too. The bears came over the fences and dragged the pigs out. Glenn would find their carcasses later in the nearby woods.”

Ninety years ago? Cochrane recorded the childhood experiences of Mary Siebenthaler Bryant, who lived on a homestead near Lower Fire Lake in the mid-1920s: “Bears were Mary’s one worry when she and John hiked between the two homesteads. ‘I always wore a sheep bell on my belt to warn the bears,’ she said.”

Phyllis Carlson, Mike Kennedy and Cliff Cernich recounted tales of many of the town’s earliest residents in "Anchorage: The Way It Was." “It was nothing unusual for early-day Anchorage residents to see moose — sometimes several of them — browsing in their back yards. And those bold enough to venture into the wilderness south of Tenth Avenue might very well stumble upon a very large and very ferocious bear.”

100 years ago? Evangeline Atwood wrote in Anchorage: Star of the North that “bears were frequent visitors” at surveyor camps after they arrived at the mouth of Ship Creek in 1914, shortly before the city was established, “so surveyors had to be on the alert to cache their food supplies high above their reach.”

Poisoned bear baits in Eagle River

I haven’t found any historical documents that suggest that bear numbers had ever been reduced or were increasing after an earlier period of decimation. If anybody knows of any such reports, I’ll be happy to add them to my file.

It’s possible that local bears were decimated by poison during the 1940s and 1950s. Miners used strychnine to kill wolves and bears on the Kenai Peninsula and probably did so on the north side of Turnagain Arm. For a brief period in the 1950s, federal predator control agents distributed poisoned baits in Eagle River Valley. Nobody documented the losses of wolves, bears, coyotes, wolverines, weasels, eagles, and other scavengers that fed on the baits. Shortly after statehood, the Alaska Board of Fish and Game prohibited the indiscriminate use of poisons.

Read Part II: Is Anchorage's bear population growing?  

I’ll be the first to admit that a list of anecdotes is not a scientific survey of bear abundance. But it makes one wonder if the people who swear that the bear population has increased in Anchorage every year for the past two decades might be wrong.

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