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Are backyard chickens too dangerous for urban bear country?

Jill Burke
Courtesy Scott Fredrickson

Anchorage's self-described “chicken people” fought long and hard to get backyard poultry pets legalized. It finally happened in April 2011, when by a 9-2 vote the Anchorage Assembly gave the OK. By then, the chicken craze sweeping Alaska was in full swing, with introductory chicken-farming classes filling up beyond capacity and farm stores having a hard time keeping up with demand.

Yet in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, chickens, regardless of how well-kept and guarded, are nearly guaranteed to catch the attention of the state's top predator. Even clean coops smell.

After a bear was caught making a pre-dawn raid on a coop early Wednesday morning on the Anchorage Hillside, followed by copycat crimes happening nearby hours later, and then again early Thursday morning, Anchorage was reminded that bears have exceptional noses for food. And bears love chickens.

Wounded, bloody bear

Complicating matters was the fact that the first homeowner managed to fire off two 12-gauge slugs into the chicken poaching bruin. The bear, injured but undeterred, slipped off into the night wailing and bloody, creating fears of a “worst case” public safety nightmare for joggers and children making their way to school.

Although they followed a blood trail after the 2 a.m. break-in, neither Anchorage police nor biologists with Alaska's Department of Fish and Game were able to find the bear. The first incident occurred on Beverly Drive, near the intersection of Huffman and Birch roads; the second took place off DeArmoun Road on Tracy Drive.

The best-case outcome? Searchers would find the bear curled up in the brush, dead, said Jessica Coltrane, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.

The worst case? The wounded bear would be curled up in the brush, near a road, with just enough energy left to jump up and pounce if it felt threatened – a safety risk for passersby. By 3:30 a.m., searchers decided to wait until daylight to continue looking, and Anchorage Police warned the public to be on the lookout.

Despite the fact that they “tromped all over,” by midday Wednesday Coltrane and other searchers had come up empty handed.

"Nothing's worse than a wounded grizzly," said Assemblyman Dick Traini, one of the two dissented votes opposed to legalizing backyard coops in the city.

Hillside bear hunt? 

After Wednesday's chicken raid gone wrong, he thinks it's time for the city to once again outlaw backyard barnyards. “Chickens are just dinner waiting for a bear. It was a mistake for this area,” he said.

In his mind there's only one alternative: "A controlled bear hunt on the Hillside."

The chicken raid is just the latest example of a string of bear run-ins along the Hillside that has had Alaska Wildlife Troopers and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists on night prowls, looking for what they believe is most likely one snoopy brown bear that has learned some bad habits. Bear ingenuity in the search of food is a great survival trait for the wild. But in a city of nearly 300,000 humans, it leads to conflicts that some Anchorage residents won’t tolerate.

Coltrane described at least one brown bear that has been “pushing in doors on sheds, garages and arctic entry ways to homes.” In one shed, the bear got a big reward, a caribou. Another time, it scored trash out of a car. Both encounters taught the bear "'If I try doors, I sometimes get rewarded.' Ever since, it's been trying all kinds of doors," Coltrane said.

The 2 a.m. chicken coop break-in happened close to a recent garage break-in, leading Coltrane to believe it's probably the same bear. Even after darting off wounded by gunfire, Coltrane suspects the same bear raided a second coop about 8:30 Wednesday morning, in the same Upper Hillside neighborhood near DeArmoun.

How many bear suspects? 

There's no way to know for sure that Chicken Thief No. 1 and Chicken Thief No. 2 are the same bear, but tracks leading away from the first break-in lead in the direction of the second. Snowy cover gave way to hard ground without snow, and the bear stopped bleeding as any trace vanished.

For now, evidence suggests that the bear is “moving fine and investigating things as it moves along,” according to Coltrane. And, it appears to still be very skittish of people.

"It's moving under the cloak of darkness, and as soon as a homeowner turned on a light or coughed, it was out of there," she said.

Still, Coltrane and another biologist plan to be out again Wednesday night, driving neighborhoods where the bear has been spotted. If another homeowner calls in a sighting or needs help, they’ll be in the vicinity.

Bears love chickens

So are chickens to blame for luring bears into family neighborhoods? Yes, says Coltrane -- but chickens aren't the only bait. Garbage, dog food, rabbits -- basically any small pets or food that smells will attract the predators.

Still, there's no avoiding a plain fact, she said: “Chickens do cause problems.”

Bears can smell them from a long way away, and even with an electric fence, an effective deterrent, they are apt to follow their nose to the source of the odor, she said.

"More bears were killed over chickens this year than over anything else," Coltrane said. “A lot of people were first-time chicken owners.”

This year, eight bears have been shot and killed by homeowners in the Municipality of Anchorage. Half were at the hands of homeowners defending their chicken coops, Coltrane said. Among the deceased was Shaguyik, a 300-pound blonde grizzly that escaped from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage while repairs to an electric fence were being made. The other homeowner kills came after bears went after horses, a llama, raided food in a garage, and went after garbage.

The coops raided early Wednesday did not have electric fences. According to Coltrane, the first coop was protected only by wire fencing. The second coop was in a barn surrounded by a chain link fence. The bear that got into it tore through the fence and broke a window to get in -- more aggressive behavior than is typically seen.

Hunting on the Hillside?

Assemblyman Chris Birch, who voted to legalize backyard chicken coops, thinks prohibiting chickens won't solve the problem. Like Traini, he believes the real problem is that there are too many bears wandering around where city-dwellers live, and that if it's a choice between keeping humans safe or bears safe, the humans should win out. Like Traini, he supports the idea of a Hillside bear hunt.

Coltrane first reaction to the idea of people running around Anchorage neighborhoods with high-powered rifles was to laugh. The single wounded bear meandering through Anchorage on Wednesday had caused enough chaos. Just imagine, she said, what it would be like if even more people were out taking aim.

Plus, she's not sure a hunt will achieve the desired outcome. Even now, bears that show up on the Hillside are drifting in from larger home ranges, often overlapping with open hunting areas and “susceptible to hunter pressure already.”

“Most of the problems we have with bears in town revolve around human negligence and garbage,” Coltrane said. “If we had one bear left in the Anchorage bowl, it would find an Anchorage trash can.”

As recently as 2010, public opinion showed high satisfaction with Fish and Game's bear management policy of dealing with problem bears on a case- by-case basis. Bears that become a severe public-safety concern are targeted for lethal removal. Overall, most people who responded to the poll didn't support culling the bear population, Coltrane said.

'Outlaw chicken people'?

“There is no solution that works completely,” said Debbie Ossiander, chair of the Assembly's land-use committee. She sponsored the 2011 ordinance that legalized backyard coops.

People were raising chickens even before it was legal, and would continue to do it if the law was reversed, she said, asking “So what are we supposed to do, outlaw chicken people?”

The better approach, she said, was to try to make it a little safer by adding restrictions:

  • Limit the number of backyard farm animals a family can have based on the size of their property;
  • Require good sanitation and noise control.

The hope: that people would use common sense, and not let their chickens run free or raise chickens next to parks or wildlife corridors frequented by bears.

Anchorage's land-use code, known as Title 21, is under review, with the assembly scheduled to take it up again in a few months. Traini has said he will push to once again ban chickens in Anchorage. Meanwhile, there is a push to prohibited free-ranging chickens, and require all chickens to be kept in secure coops, a direct result of the increased bear encounters, Ossiander said. It's not a perfect fix, but may minimize the number of feathers and smells circulating, she said.

The goal? Striking a balance between public safety and giving citizens the right to lead the lives they want to.

For now, it appears the chickens are here to stay. “A lot of people really like this,” she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com