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Fish and Game officials put down curious brown bear near Alaska's largest city

Rick Sinnott
A black bear walks along the busy Turnagain Arm Trail on May 13, 2012. The trail was packed with families celebrating Mother's Day.
Courtesy Charles Holmes
A brown bear grazing at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012.
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images
A brown bear stands on it's hind legs at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images
A brown bear grazes along Turnagain Arm on Sunday, May 13, 2012. The bear was observed bluff-charging onlookers who crowded the bear, some of whom came within 10 yards of the wild animal.
Courtesy Helen O'Harra

A young brown bear seen and photographed by many people along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage in recent weeks was euthanized Tuesday after charging one too many hikers. Among other incidents, the bear had been surrounded and approached by camera-wielding motorists at Rainbow last week. 

Jessy Coltrane, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said she decided to euthanize the 2-year-old female bear after it ran towards a hiker on the Turnagain Arm Trail, near McHugh Creek, Tuesday morning. A pattern of overly bold behavior was developing. The 200-pound bear reportedly charged two other hikers on the same trail earlier this week.

Running from bear a bad idea

In each instance, the bear stopped a short distance from the hikers, but the hikers broke and ran. “People were seeing her all the time and doing absolutely the wrong thing,” Coltrane said.

Experts strongly recommend not running from a bear. A bear can easily outrun any human and running may trigger a chase reflex. Instead of running, bear-safety experts recommend standing your ground. Most charging bears stop or veer off before making contact. Only after the bear stops approaching is it time to slowly increase your distance from the bear. Playing dead is only recommended when a bear is acting defensively and makes contact.

In recent encounters, the Turnagain Arm bear was not acting defensively. Rather, it was approaching boldly. Hikers should have stood their ground, yelled, and prepared to defend themselves if it approached within arm’s reach. Bear spray, or even a stout stick or hefty rocks, can be very effective deterrents in the rare instances a bold bear gets too close. An excellent DVD, “Staying Safe in Bear Country,” explains bear behavior and demonstrates actions that are most likely to avoid escalating human-bear encounters. Main messages of the video are summarized here.

Coltrane said after she was called on Tuesday morning, she and her assistant, Dave Battle, immediately drove towards McHugh Creek. They found the bear at a highway pullout about a mile south of Potter Marsh. An Anchorage police officer was already on the scene. 

Was it the escaped bear?

After three close encounters in a week, Coltrane had resolved to shoot the bear. However, a 300-pound, 2-year-old female brown bear named Shaguyik had escaped from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), near Portage, in early April and was presumably still at large. Before Tuesday, Coltrane hadn’t seen Shaguyik or the Turnagain Arm bear. She didn’t want to euthanize the wrong bear.

Shaguyik has a PIT tag and a small abdominal scar from spaying, neither discernable unless the bear is sedated. Coltrane asked the police officer to keep an eye on the bear, while she drove back to Anchorage to borrow a portable PIT tag reader from a veterinarian.

By the time the wildlife biologists returned, the bear had walked along the Seward Highway and was just across the highway from the Chugach State Park headquarters. Coltrane darted the bear, a risky procedure because a brown bear may charge when it feels the sting of the dart and darting requires a close approach. She was unable to find a PIT tag, but the tiny piece of coded wire inserted under the skin can prove difficult to locate with a portable tag reader. She was also unable to find an abdominal scar. Coltrane called Mike Miller, AWCC’s founder and executive director, and asked him to drive up from Portage to inspect the sedated bear. “I wanted to be 100 percent sure,” she said. Miller confirmed that it was not Shaguyik.

Increasing hazard

Coltrane and Battle euthanized the young bear because it posed an increasing hazard to hikers in the area. Turnagain Arm Trail is a popular spring hike for many Anchorage residents because it’s one of the first trails where the snow melts. “The trail is crawling with people,” Coltrane said.

It was approaching neighborhoods on the Anchorage Hillside where it would find trash and become an even greater public hazard. Coltrane said the police officer saw the bear getting into a bag of trash at the pullout on Tuesday morning.

In the past two weeks the bear had found a pile of discarded salmon and a dead dog that had been shot and tossed into a roadside ditch. Young bears are curious. Motorists or hikers may have fed the bear. That would explain the repeated running at hikers, with no apparent desire to continue to approach when food was not provided.

The unhealthy combination of natural curiosity, human food conditioning, the reluctance of some Alaskans to keep garbage away from bears, and the inappropriate reactions of hikers reporting close encounters led to the bear’s demise. 

Rick Sinnott is the former Anchorage-area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a freelance writer.