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Fearing an encounter, third Anchorage bear of summer killed

Rick Sinnott

Anchorage-area biologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a state wildlife trooper shot and killed a brown bear Wednesday evening in the Oceanview neighborhood of the state's largest citiy, the third bear known to be dispatched this season in the city.  

The young male bear had killed a moose calf in the backyard of a house on Clipper Ship Drive and dragged the carcass into an adjacent wooded area. Two days earlier a caller had seen a brown bear, perhaps the same one, about a mile to the west, on Woo Boulevard.

Surfeit of young brown bears

This is the second young brown bear shot in Anchorage over the past three days. The first, which may have been a sibling, was shot June 3 after it visited a llama killed by one or more brown bears near Rabbit Creek Road and posed a threat to two miniature ponies. It was shot by the llama's owner, Michael Gribbon, who reported seeing two other brown bears on his property that day. Wildlife authorities had shot another young brown bear May 22 near Potter Marsh after it developed a pattern of rushing hikers, a behavior that may have been stimulated by obtaining human foods in the area. 

Jessy Coltrane, the area Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said she had just arrived home after work when she got the call about the latest bear.  

She met her assistant, Dave Battle, and the only wildlife trooper stationed in Anchorage, David Ledford, on a short section of Huffman Road off Johns Road. They believed the bear was still in the half-acre wooded area -- but had no idea where. After walking a footpath that traversed the tract without finding the calf carcass, they investigated the edges of a black-spruce bog.

That's where they found the bear, about 100 yards from the kill site and about 40 yards from Huffman Road. The bear was crouched and appeared to be pawing at something on the ground.

Moose calves are vulnerable for a short period in June and July. Frequently, a brown bear will kill a calf, eat some of the tastier parts, and then go looking for another. Of course, the bear intends to come back and finish its meal. Wildlife biologists in Anchorage remove moose carcasses in neighborhoods to prevent bears, which can be possessive, from injuring anyone who walks near the carcass. Often in these cases the bear doesn't show itself and is presumed absent, making it easy to drag the calf out of the woods without a threat to bears or biologists.

Snap decision to shoot

Assuming that this bear was sitting next to the carcass, the three officials considered their options. Leaving the bear and carcass in the wooded area was problematic. They were in an area surrounded by hundreds of homes and apartments, and it was possible someone would unwittingly enter the wooded lot and be attacked. Because it was a young bear, the biologists briefly considered chasing it away. However, it's never a good idea to chase a brown bear through a neighborhood. So Coltrane decided to shoot the bear. She believed leaving the bear in the wooded area surrounded by people wasn't worth the risk.

It was getting dim under the trees, and the three officials were reluctant to approach the bear too closely with its kill in the vicinity. All three carried 12-gauge shotguns loaded with slugs. Trooper Ledford had the best shot. The bear collapsed, but immediately got up and attempted to walk away. Four or five additional shots were quickly used to immobilize the bear and ensure that it was dead.

Bears are not easy to kill, and bears believed to be dead have been known to jump up and charge the shooter. The calf carcass was not found.

Wildlife paparazzi

Nearby neighbors heard the shots, and a small crowd gathered by the time the bear carcass was dragged out of the woods. Coltrane has expressed frustration this spring over what she calls the "wildlife paparazzi." The burgeoning use of cellphones for instant messaging can quickly attract a crowd of interested observers. And, of course, the same cellphones are handy for documenting the experience with snapshots. A little bolder than some, one young man asked someone to snap his photo kneeling behind the bear, a pose used by some hunters that's known as a trophy shot. Coltrane told him that was not at all appropriate considering the circumstances under which the bear had to be shot -- and the fact that he hadn't shot the bear.

Coltrane believes the bear was about 3 years old. She believes, based on calls from the public, that two pair of young brown bears roamed the Anchorage Hillside last week. After the first bear was shot, she had one report of the other pair. She isn't sure if the bear shot Wednesday is a sibling of the bear shot three days before or one of the other pair.

The latest bear died a little more than 3 miles from the bear shot on the Hillside -- not far from a bear's perspective. Its most likely route from the Hillside, avoiding all but a handful of road crossings, was down Rabbit or Little Rabbit creek and along the coast through the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and Johns Park, located just across Johns Road from the bear's last stand.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com