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State investigates shooting of escaped Alaska conservation center grizzly

Craig Medred
Doug Lindstrand photo

The shooting in Portage of a Kodiak brown bear on loan to the government of Sweden is now being investigated by the Alaska State Troopers. The homeowner who killed the bear has yet to be identified, but he told authorities he believed the animal was threatening him and his livestock.

"We assigned a trooper to look into it," Alaska Wildlife Trooper commander Gary Folger said Friday.

The Kodiak bear was running loose in the swamps and forests about 45 miles south of Anchorage after escaping from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at the head of Turnagain Arm. Originally orphaned on Kodiak Island, the bear had spent more than a year at the center being conditioned for life in a Swedish zoo. It escaped in April after the center shut off power to an electric fence to perform maintenance on its pen.

A lengthy search followed. The bear was tracked as far as possible across the snow then still blanketing the Placer, Portage and Twentymile river valleys. The tracks eventually disappeared, and so did the bear. No sign of it was found until AWCC employees were called across the Seward Highway to investigate the carcass of a bear killed in a cluster of homes on the edge of the Chugach National Forest earlier this week.

They found their microchip in the bear carcass and expressed "dismay." Center staff also called for a trooper investigation.

Relationships aren't always the best between the wildlife conservation center, on the west side of the busy highway linking Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula, and the Alaskans who live on the east side of the highway. There are some people up-valley from the AWCC who think the facility draws wild bears down out of the wilderness that blankets the isthmus where the Chugach and Kenai mountains collide between Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound.

The streams that drain the area are rich in hooligan -- a small, fat-rich anadromous smelt -- and salmon, and thus the area is rich in bears, both blacks and grizzlies. Most of the latter avoid the busy road corridor through the area, but the smells of bison, moose, elk, caribou and other animals -- not to mention the food stored at the center to feed them all -- are an undeniable attraction for a hungry bear.

Less than a mile from the conservation center, two waterfowl hunters had a nightmarish encounter with a wild grizzly only last fall. The bear came charging at their blind while they were sitting quietly waiting for ducks to descend into decoys. The men managed to kill the bear before it injured them, but it was close.

One of the hunters had to jump out of the boat being used as a blind to avoid being grabbed by the bear, and the other hunter shot the animal only a foot or two short of snatching his companion. "Neither of us was hurt, not a scratch," hunter Tim Baker later told friends. "We were just scared shitless."

The October shooting was ruled legal. Alaska has a law that specifically allows for people to shoot bears in "defense of life and property.'' It is commonly referred to as the "DLP law." Dozens of bears are DLP-killed in the 49th state every year. It is rare to have a DLP claim challenged by authorities, although it has happened.

A 24-year-old man was found guilty of illegally killing a grizzly bear on the Anchorage Hillside last November even though he claimed self defense. Authorities wouldn't buy it. They said Brian Garst lured the bear into his yard with a leg of moose meat, and then shot her in the ass after she grabbed the leg and ran back to her cubs with it.

The meat of wild animals is specifically exempted from the "property" definition in the DLP law, which left Garst with "self defense" as his only claim for legally shooting the bear. That is a hard claim to make when the animal is shot in the back. The dead sow's cubs are now enjoying a safe life in the Detroit Zoo.

Details on the Portage shooting are still sketchy, but someone who shoots a bear to defend livestock can make a legitimate claim to have shot it to defend property. Whether or not the shooter had even a hint of an idea the bear was the conservation center escapee is unclear. There are plenty of brown bears in the general area, and state officials say this one was no different than others despite the fact it had been spayed and conditioned to accept the presence of humans.

By law, said Larry Van Daele, the newly appointed regional wildlife supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the bear remained a wild bear belonging to "the people of the state of Alaska.

"Even the bear that went to Sweden continues to be ours on long term loan," he said. "The only time animals change from being the property of the state to private property is after they are dead."

The bear that went to Sweden would be the sibling of the dead bear. Both were cubs Van Daele sent to the center from Kodiak, where he was the area biologist, after their mother was killed and they were orphaned. Though the conservation center had the bear in its pen, it wasn't the center's bear.

"AWCC was actually just holding the bear before Sweden could take possession of it," Van Daele said. "Sweden has the permit for the bear. When we issue a permit, that permit is a long term loan."

Van Daele described the process of the bear being orphaned, raised at the conversation center, escaping, spending a couple months in the wild, and finally being shot dead as "an unfortunate situation."

A brown/grizzly bear (state wildlife officials consider them the same animal) being shot in Southcentral Alaska is not, however, a rare occurrence. Three brown bears have already been shot in Anchorage this year by state officials because of the danger the animals pose to people.

The bears are big, powerful and plentiful, and it doesn't take much effort on their part to maim or even kill a human. Two popular Anchorage runners died when attacked by a grizzly on the edge of the city.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com