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Hen-house raiding bear leads biologist to Hillside’s ‘trash buffet line’

Jill Burke
Courtesy Scott Fredrickson

Wildlife biologist Jessica Coltrane spent her evening and wee morning hours on a stake out in Anchorage for a wounded bear that's behaving badly for the people and poultry in its path. And ultimately bad for the bear, since its recent binges -- in trash, sheds, garages and chicken coops -- amid the mountainside residences known in Anchorage as the Hillside neighborhood are likely bringing it closer to its last meal.

The brown bear with a taste for hens has already been shot twice by one homeowner defending his coop. And chances are someone, whether another homeowner or a state wildlife manager like Coltrane, will pump a few more bullets into the bruin before its raids are over.

Coltrane's overnight patrol was a frustrating one. Not so much because the bear eluded the humans who are after it, but because humans who populate the upscale South Anchorage neighborhood are luring bears to their doorsteps. And this time, the chickens weren't to blame.

“I was highly disappointed in residents on the Hillside that had unsecured trash out last night when I was patrolling,” Coltrane said via email Thursday afternoon. For all the grousing people want to do about urban hen houses, the buffet lining the streets in trash cans on trash day is just as stinky, just as irresistible to the hefty predators looking to fatten up on a few more feasts before winter.

Which is not to say chickens don't play some role in recent events. It's suspected the same marauding bear shot early Wednesday after raiding a chicken coop went on to paw a second coop that same day -- and quite possibly a third and a fourth Wednesday night and Thursday morning. None of the chicken coops were protected by electric fencing, the recommended best defense against bears.

Yes, the tasty smell of a poultry snack may still attract the bear to the site, but a good zap from an electrified fence should be enough to teach the bear to back off and find its meal somewhere else.

At this point, Coltrane believes the shot bear will survive its gunshot wounds and "should not pose any higher risk to folks than any other chicken-coop-raiding brown bear."

With so much food easy to pick off throughout the neighborhoods, the brazen bruin isn't alone looking for a quick snack. There are several garbage-diving black bears in the area, and Coltrane's fairly certain there's more than one brown bear, too.

“It makes me crazy,” said Lucy Peckham, a lead advocate for legalizing backyard chickens. She's a member of the Coalition for Backyard Pets, a group that has in the past helped teach people about raising chickens and which worked hard to get the Anchorage Assembly to change city law in 2011.

Her neighborhood, on the Hillside below Service High School but above Elmore Road, is home to four chicken coops, she said. All have electric fences, and none have had bear-chicken run-ins. But there have plenty of garbage-rummaging bears.

“If the right protection is taken, then bears are not a problem. I don't know why people hesitate to do the right thing,” she lamented, only to then acknowledge that “people are inherently lazy.”

Which came first? Bear or chicken coops?

Her perspective is that it's the humans who are living in bear country, and not bears who are invading human habitat. If everyone would take a more active, more responsible role in recognizing that, then bears and people would be better served, she said.

In a city with reasonable and intelligent people, it seems like it should be easier to get more of them to adopt smarter living habits. The fact that they don't frustrates Peckham terribly.

“That bear is now a dead bear and it's not the bear's fault,” she said of the wounded brown bear somewhere on the Hillside.

For now, Coltrane isn't planning another overnight vigil as she had the past two nights. It's time for her and her staff to get some sleep; the bear seems to be skittish of people and prowling only at night, and Anchorage Police are just a phone call away.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com