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Chicken coops irresistible to hungry urban bears

Casey Grove
This bear found good dining on trash day in the Foxhall subdivision off Northern Lights and Patterson on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
Photo by LAUREL DAVIS
John Will's chicken coop was broken into by a black bear July 5. Will lives near the end of Eagle River Road. The bear came back the next day and was shot.
Photo by JOHN WILL

Chicken coop raids by local black bears are on the rise, just as Southcentral moves into its peak season for bear activity, according to an Anchorage biologist.

In July alone, at least five black bears caught pilfering poultry have been shot, either by homeowners or police, said Anchorage area Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane, who said she suspects more bear kills go unreported.

"Chickens are one of our biggest attractants, aside from garbage and bird seed, and it's growing because the number of chickens is growing," Coltrane said.

Coltrane attributes the jump, in part, to a recent city ordinance that makes it easier to keep chickens within the municipality, from its northern boundary in Chugiak and Birchwood south to Girdwood.

Mostly, though, the problem stems from residents' ignorance about bear deterrence in Anchorage, she said.

"I get, on average, a call a day about a bear getting into chickens," Coltrane said. "They're thinking I'm going to come do something about the bears. But what I really want is for them to secure their chickens."

Bear-proofing means keeping the chickens and their feed in a place bears can't get into and stringing up electric fences powerful enough to stop a bear from entering, Coltrane explained. Oftentimes, she said, chicken owners using electric fences don't have strong enough fences or enough power to deter a crafty, determined bear, she said.

"If people are going to have chickens in bear country, they're going to have to take extra precautions," Coltrane said. "Chickens are an easy meal if you don't protect them."

Bears are not an uncommon sight in the Prudhoe Bay Avenue neighborhood where Eagle River resident John Will said he's kept chickens for about 20 years. It's nice to have fresh eggs to eat and give to his neighbors, and he's never had bear trouble, Will said.

That was until recently.

Will thought his 11 hens were safe in his fenced yard and chicken coop, which had electric fencing around it. But a black bear tore down the fence July 2, pushed into the yard and gobbled up six chickens, Will said.

"That really ticked me off," he said.

Will said he locked up the five remaining birds in their coop. Then, four days later, the bear came back for a second helping. It tore a hole in the door and killed the remaining hens, Will said.

"He got 'em all. I'm out of the chicken and egg business," Will said.

The bear returned the next morning while Will was doing chores around the house, he said.

"Here he comes, crawling out of that hole he made in the door, and then he challenged me," Will said. "I went to shoo him off, and he stood his ground right there, and huffed and puffed at me, and then started walking toward me."

So Will got his .30-30 rifle, took aim and fired, killing the bear immediately. He guessed it was about three years old and no stranger to stealing from humans: It already had buckshot in its rump, he said.

Will said he didn't want to shoot the bear, but it seemed too comfortable coming into his territory. Will worried that kids in the neighborhood might get hurt, he said.

"Some people throw stuff at 'em, and they holler and they shoot around in the air," Will said. "You would scare off a normal bear, but not him."

Coltrane, the biologist, said she still sees more bears attracted to homes by unsecured garbage than by chickens. But people are more apt to shoot a bear getting into chickens.

"As we start to increase the number of chickens, I've definitely seen the number of chicken(-related) calls go up and the number of bears killed over chickens go up," Coltrane said. "We've had very few incidents with people being injured by black bears in town. They're looking for the free, easy meal. But our risk increases dramatically when we draw them into our homes and give them a reason to stay there."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

Reader photos: 2011 bear sightings
By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com