AD Main Menu

Is bear population growing in Anchorage, Alaska?

Courtesy Scott Fredrickson

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Some Anchorage residents insist that bear numbers are increasing in and around the city. In part one, Rick Sinnott provided historical anecdotes suggesting otherwise. Here he dissects those claims another way.)

During most of Anchorage's history, almost nobody hunted bears in the Chugach Mountains and surrounding lowlands. Moose, mountain goats, Dall sheep, and small game -- edible animals -- were preferred. A hunter might shoot a bear that got too close and would almost certainly try to shoot a bold or aggressive bear. But hundreds of hunters, and hundreds of armed hikers, will still shoot a bold or aggressive bear encountered in Chugach State Park. It just doesn't happen often.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game records bear this out. In the first decade during which bear kills were documented (1960-1969 for brown bears and 1973-1982 for black bears), hunters shot 14 brown bears, with an additional eight shot in defense of life or property. That's an average of about two brown bears a year. Hunters shot 104 black bears, with an additional eight shot in defense of life or property -- an average of about 11 black bears a year.

Read Part I: How many bears call Anchorage home?

Those harvest rates might have limited the growth of a population of 50 black bears and 25 brown bears, but not 200 black and 50 brown bears. Thus, according to historical records, hikers and homeowners weren't shooting enough bears until the 21st century to reduce population size. And most of the brown bears shot in defense of life or property were in Eklutna and Peters creek drainages, nowhere near the Anchorage Bowl.

Anchorage had so many black bears in the 1960s that there was no closed season and hunters could shoot as many as three per year, including cubs and sows with cubs. Hunting with dogs was allowed. Successful hunters didn't need to report black bear kills until the early 1970s. Obviously, Fish and Game wasn't worried about overharvesting the black bear population.

Hunters harvesting Anchorage bears

Today hundreds of hunters are looking for bears in the Anchorage area, particularly in spring when other big-game hunting seasons are closed. In the past decade, Fish and Game has lengthened hunting seasons for bears and allowed hunting in previously closed drainages of Chugach State Park. Consequently, the annual harvest has increased. Hunters harvested six brown bears in 2011, a record number. Hunters have also harvested record numbers of black bears in recent years, averaging 50 bears annually during the past five hunting seasons.

Hunters are not the only source of bear mortality. In the Anchorage area most of the bears shot in defense of life or property are shot in or near neighborhoods by homeowners. Adding DLPs and roadkills to the total brings the average number of brown and black bears killed annually in the Anchorage area to about seven and 68, respectively.

The number of bears killed in recent years is too high to sustain, based on existing population estimates. Shooting more bears than the number that can be replaced by reproduction or immigration means that local bear populations could be decreasing instead of increasing. Yet some people are adamant that the Anchorage bear population is increasing every year. Just like the mosquitoes.

Hard to kill

Some Anchorage residents claim to know of bears shot and not reported. Undoubtedly. There's no way to account for illegal shooting and failures to report. On the other hand, that's always been a problem. But if incidents of "shoot, shovel, and shut up" are as prevalent as some suggest, that's another reason to believe bear numbers are not increasing.

Some people think allowing bear hunting in Anchorage would be a simple way to reduce bear numbers. As I pointed out, these bears are already being hunted -- in Chugach State Park and adjacent areas outside of the Anchorage metropolitan area. Those who insist on hunting bears in the city itself are not thinking clearly. Most hunters are not crack shots. Wounding rates are high, especially (I would argue) among bear hunters because bears are relatively hard to kill and novice bear hunters tend to be twitchier than other hunters due to the extra adrenaline. How many rifles discharging in parks and wounded bears in neighborhoods is a city willing to tolerate?

More people, more bear sightings

Anchorage has grown so large it's hard to imagine that it was a small town not long ago. Only 3,495 people resided in Anchorage in 1940. The 1970 census counted 48,081 residents. Unlike bears, the human population has sextupled in the last four decades.

The way we use the woods and mountains has also changed. In 1940 -- even in 1970 -- most people found in the woods were likely to be hunting. Few people took hikes, rode mountain bikes on backcountry trails, or ran on networks of trails in large municipal and state parks. It was a far cry from the tens of thousands of recreationists who visit local parks these days.

More people means more bear sightings.

Most of the people in the woods are on trails. Bears also use human trails, especially trails along salmon-spawning streams and trails not used by hordes of people. Bears leave a lot of evidence behind where they travel: tracks, scats, partially consumed salmon, ransacked trashcans. So even if trail users aren't seeing lots of bears, they can see lots of bear sign. More trails mean more bear sightings.

More people also means more garbage, pet food, birdseed, and livestock. The Anchorage regional landfill processes 1,100 tons of refuse per day. If only one percent of that is edible, probably a conservative estimate, the city's residents deposit over 10 tons of potential bear food in dumpsters, trash cans, and plastic bags every day. The city teems with more 137,000 dogs and cats; many are fed outside where bears can lick the dishes clean. And residents own thousands of chickens, ducks, and rabbits and a smattering of large animals such as horses and sheep. Thousands of people feed wild birds in Anchorage. Many leave their feeders up all summer, when bears are active and wild birds have plenty of natural foods (like mosquitoes). Bears gobble up birdseed, suet, peanuts, anything you'd feed a bird.  

Anchorage residents leave tons of food outside that a hungry bear might find, and bears find human food -- with high levels of fats, carbohydrates and protein -- nearly addictive. There's a term for what happens to these bears: food-conditioning. The city and its suburbs are a 100-square-mile bait bucket.

What happens when a bear is tempted into the city and walks around neighborhoods knocking over garbage cans or trying to figure out how to break into the rickety sheds where the chicken feed is kept? That bear is seen by lots of people. People who think bear numbers are increasing are often baiting the bear into their yard. Repeatedly.

And those people call their friends and neighbors. But not to solve the problem. They call to complain about how the bear population is exploding and how Fish and Game isn't doing anything about it. Anchorage residents who have never seen a bear complain that there are too many in town.

When a bear is rewarded for taking a risk (approaching people) with highly nutritious food (garbage, pet food, birdseed), it quickly learns to repeat that behavior. Initially a bear will raid garbage cans only at night, when few people are about. But eventually it'll learn to saunter down the road during the day. And be seen by even more people.  

Overhyping by media?

The mass media contributes to the angst by reporting bear-human interactions. A bear mauling is news even in other states and countries. The media's involvement in overhyping rare but memorable events is well documented. Brazen or aggressive bear behavior is a sure-fire front-page story. The more controversy that's generated, the more website traffic, the more stories get written. The more stories we see, the more buzz that's generated, the more we share bear sightings. It's a vicious circle.

Numbers of bears fluctuate from year to year, but most of the evidence I'm familiar with doesn't support the contention that bear numbers are increasing. The only evidence that suggests black and brown bear populations have been growing for decades is that more bears are being seen. However, the best explanation for that appears to be more people, more trails, more attractants, more food-conditioned bears, and more media coverage.

Too big, too small, or just right

Unless we're willing to spend a lot of money, we'll never know for sure how many bears live in and near Anchorage. However, we do know what most people think about "urban bears." Most Anchorage residents appreciate having bears around, or at least they tolerate the presence of bears.

Fish and Game commissioned two studies, in 1996 and 2009, to ascertain public opinions about bears in and near the city. Notably, both studies were conducted within a year of well-publicized bear maulings. Nevertheless, most Anchorage adults believed the number of bears in and around the city was about right.

Real killers: mosquitoes, wasps

Fish and Game never asks about mosquitoes in its surveys of public opinion. But I suspect most Anchorage residents would say too many mosquitoes inhabit the city and its environs. Most of us fear large carnivores despite epidemiologists' warnings about organisms much smaller and more dangerous. Although bears get the coverage and produce most of the public angst, mosquitoes are deadlier. Worldwide, more than 1 million people die from mosquito-borne diseases every year. Alaska is not equatorial Africa. But it might behoove us to stop complaining about a few bears and focus our attention on the truly dangerous beasts – like mosquitoes, spiders, bees and wasps – that kill hundreds of Americans every year.

I'm not saying bears aren't a problem or that the occasional Alaska bear mauling is inconsequential. But most of the problems with bears can be addressed by more public engagement in controlling garbage and other human sources of bear food.

Meanwhile, Fish and Game is actively engaged in minimizing bear problems, primarily by increasing hunting opportunities on the outskirts of the city, shooting potentially dangerous bears in neighborhoods, and helping humans and bears learn to coexist, both in the city and in the 700-square-mile state park on its outskirts.

What isn't productive is demonizing bears and inciting public outrage over a perceived hazard -- bear maulings -- that rarely materializes. What some folks fret about most is the ideological notion that bears don't belong in Anchorage because it's a city. I suppose you could say the same thing about mosquitoes.

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(at)gmail.com