AD Main Menu

Big predators in urban areas? Alaska has them!

Craig Medred
Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Wildlife scientists in the Lower 48 are reporting that the success coyotes have achieved in colonizing urban areas could be a sign large predators might be able to live among masses of people. "Coyotes In The City: Could Urban Bears Be Next?'' headlined National Public Radio story.

Memo to Americans living in the Lower 48 states: Bears already are living in urban areas, and wolves are at the gate. The bear research has already been done in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife researcher Sean Farley years ago documented that not only bears -- but big, ferocious grizzly bears -- live in just about every green space in the city of nearly 300,000. Farley's radio-collared bears regularly traversed greenbelts within spitting distance of the city's busiest malls. The conclusion from Farley's research was obvious:

Unless humans kill the big carnivores, the big carnivores are perfectly capable of living among people.

Urban bears thriving

The problem is not whether big carnivores can live among people, but whether people want big carnivores to live among them. Despite occasionally mauling Anchorage residents and occasionally getting shot and killed because of concerns about public safety, bears -- including those notoriously dangerous grizzlies -- are thriving around and even in the city. With that comes all the amenities and drawbacks -- say traffic congestion -- that are part of life in urban America.

A big risk bears face in the Anchorage area is that they can become "road kill,'' which answers part of a question posed by the Christian Science Monitor: "Are apex predators getting a taste for city life, too?'' 

The answer to that one seems to be that apex predators don't care about urban life. What they care about is finding food and cover. It appears they will live wherever those simple conditions are met so long as no one shoots them.

Keeping wolves out

In Anchorage, sadly for some big predators, this life among people has clearly proven easier for the bears -- which are largely solitary animals except for sows with cubs -- than for wolves. Wolves are pack animals, and people have shown less tolerance for having packs of predators at the doorstep.

An Anchorage wolf pack was exterminated after the wolves began attacking pet dogs and brazenly approaching people. Wildlife biologists worried about an attack on humans.

Such fears have largely kept wolves out of the city. They regularly roam half-million-acre Chugach State Park, which borders the northeastern edge of Anchorage, and sometimes they launch forays up against the edge of the city. But they have not been allowed to move in because of fears about how they might behave.

These fears were only heightened by the fact that a wolf pack killed a woman in Southwest Alaska, apparently as prey. Alaska’s experience with big predators has illustrated two issues:

Bears and wolves -- like coyotes and cougars -- can obviously live among humans. But do human want them too?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com