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Seward chicken owners plagued by 'rogue' bears want state to take them out

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: October 22, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2016

This story has been updated with new developments here

Since early Wednesday morning, Corinne and Keith Danzl of Seward have slept in their clothes, loaded guns at the ready.

That's when they shot and killed the brown bear cub that raided their backyard coop — part of a chicken-killing spree that has the Questa Woods subdivision on an edgy bruin watch.

The retired correctional officers moved into the subdivision just outside Seward nearly 10 years ago. Brown bears and the signs of their presence are nothing new: the claw gouges on a pickup, the garbage cans tossed around.

That's all fairly normal when you live in a subdivision of about 50 homes tucked up against the side of a mountain, not far from the rushing water of Bear Creek.

Seward isn't unique. The conflict between bears and backyard chickens is a familiar one in Eagle River and Chugiak, on the Anchorage Hillside and in other Alaska communities. Communities around the state have wrestled with the issue as chicken coops have sprouted in areas where bears sometimes wander.

The Danzls contend these bears — a sow and two cubs, down from three — are different.

They're "rogue," Keith Danzl said by phone Friday. "It's just these particular bears. We've got other bears in the area but they're not so brazen."

The couple say they're not the only residents of the Questa Woods subdivision, as well as a nearby subdivision, who want the state to kill the bear trio before kids or pets get hurt, or worse.

Officials say the state isn't killing any bears at this point.

"When you live in bear country, it's our responsibility to do what we can, within reason, to make our property less attractive to bears," Seward-based Alaska Wildlife Trooper Scott Sands said.

'Not going to end well'

A friend told the Danzls she faced down a bear with an air horn from about 10 feet away as the bear popped its jaws and growled before backing down. Another said a bear chased him about a week ago before his dog got in the way. A neighbor had eight of a dozen hens killed and said the bears left bloody paw prints before coming back several times.

Residents say the encounters are all with the same bear: the big sow with the cubs. Sands said numerous bears are in the area.

People are spooked, scared to let kids play or dogs out, Danzl said. A Facebook group tracking the animals paints a hectic picture of bears prowling dark yards on nightly chicken-eating rampages that end with smashed fences and splintered chicken coops, sometimes several times a night.

Reports, sometimes several a day, relied on the sound of airhorn blasts and gunfire to plot the animals as they moved through the subdivision.

"The bears are back on Timber, the neighbors fired a gun several times to scare it off," one person posted. "I could hear it ROARING at him all the way at my house. This s— is not going to end well."

People say the sow is huge, that the bears rip doors off hinges. They've posted photos of torn-up outbuildings and fences.

"It's draining," Corinne Danzl said. "One of our friends, she said she's like a walking zombie. She's barely slept in the last week."

Garbage, unprotected coops

Sands, the wildlife trooper based in Seward, said that as of Friday, he hadn't received any reports of the bears being aggressive around people but had cited several residents in recent years for attracting bears with garbage.

Wildlife authorities say residents in the subdivisions of Questa Woods and also Lost Lake need to take steps to stop attracting bears in the first place.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and troopers have documented cases of bears getting into garbage and "unprotected poultry and domesticated waterfowl" in the two subdivisions, Soldotna-based wildlife biologist Larry Lewis wrote in an email.

"The best long-term course of action for people in these neighborhoods is to deny these animals food reward by taking simple, basic steps such as electric fencing around coops and other livestock and securing garbage in a manner that does not allow wildlife easy access," Lewis wrote.

Once those steps are taken, he continued, residents have the option of killing a bear "in defense of life and property" as laid out by state statute.

Sands said that he cited several people in the summer of 2015 for trash violations. This summer, it was chicken coops drawing bears, though he cited a Questa Woods resident Friday for bags of human and dog food waste in their yard.

He's heard from six or seven chicken owners about the bears but found only a few had electric fences around coops. The fences work when they're properly installed, but he's seen single-strand fences that bears can walk over or that get grounded against something nearby and don't work.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game "rarely if ever" relocates bears because it's most often a temporary fix and doesn't address whatever is bringing the bears in the first place, spokesman Ken Marsh wrote in an email.

Night visit

The Danzls said they were already on alert this week when the bears came.

Corinne, an artist, stays up late and was just turning in around 1 a.m. when she heard noises outside through a window she cracked open to keep tabs, given all the bear activity.

She woke her husband, who grabbed his shotgun and ran out the back to investigate.

"That's when he yelled, 'They're here!' " Danzl recalled Friday.

The bears shoved open a gate to a coop holding 17 9-week-old chicks. The doors to the coop hung ajar, one ripped clean off its hinges, she said.

"We didn't know at that point if it was just one cub. Of course, the chickens, I could hear them just screeching in pure terror. Keith actually heard crunching."

He fired into the ground and spooked the cub out of the coop. The bear ran across the snow below the couple, who stood on a deck. Keith, with his shotgun, and Corinne, who'd grabbed her Glock 20, opened fire simultaneously and they both shot the cub, the couple said in a phone interview.

"We could hear the sow at the far end of our yard … the cub didn't really scream but she was frantic," Corinne said. "She ended up busting an entire 6- by 10-foot panel out of the fence, flattened it, to get out of the yard with the two cubs. We never saw her."

Then they sat on the deck and waited for first light.

Trooper Sands came out to the Danzl home Wednesday to investigate the cub shooting. Sands said he found it a credible case of defense of life and property, protected under state law. He also found a clean coop and a yard free of garbage.

"Everything was legit," he said.

The Danzls said they bought an electric fence this week.

"We got one going up right now," Keith Danzl said.

They say they don't necessarily want people shooting bears in defense of life and property. That's why they want the state involved.

"We're comfortable with our weapons," Corinne Danzl said, pointing out they had another shot at a bear that they chose not to take because the light wasn't good enough. "But in a panic situation like that, it worries me that somebody could accidentally hit a house."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the bear cub killed Wednesday was a 2-year-old. According to an Alaska State Trooper who investigated, the cub was from this year. 

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