The grizzly bears are officially out in Alaska, but not in the normal way.
The first grizzly to emerge in the Anchorage area didn't leave a den after hibernation. It departed the bear enclosure at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. The animal apparently figured it could escape when power to a surrounding fence was shut off.
"We had our electric fence turned off for maintenance and during that time something spooked (the bear named) Shaguyik," center manager Mike Miller said in a press release. The bear is not thought to be a threat. The Portage area is only sparsely inhabited, and Shaguyik is now on the loose in a habitat used by significant numbers of wild grizzly bears. Two duck hunters had a nasty encounter with one of those bears last fall near the Wildlife Center and had to kill it to save themselves.
They didn't see the bear until it was almost upon them. Bear-spotting conditions in the area are much better now. Summer brush remains buried beneath feet of snow.
In fact, snow helped the 2-year-old bear escape the facility where it's lived since being orphaned, Miller said.
"Unfortunately, this year's heavy snow load required us to fix our electric fence, and that's when the incident occurred," he said in the press release. "Our priority now is to work closely with Fish and Game to locate the bear and safely return it to captivity."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is the state agency with authority over animals in the wild, no matter how they got there. Fish and Game has set a trap near the wildlife center in hopes the bear returns and can be caught.
"We spent two days looking for that bear last week after she got loose," said Gino Del Frate, the management coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "They did not find it." The bear is roaming a vast wilderness.
What remains of the community of Portage -- the city itself was destroyed by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake -- sits at the tip of a broad swath of undeveloped country that stretches from the end of Turnagain Arm west to Prince William Sound. To the north, lands sprawl into the nothingness of half-million-acre Chugach State Park. To the south, there is wilderness of the Chugach National Forest.
With freezing, night-time temperatures putting a heavy crust on the snow last week, the bear that took off in a straight line away from Portage could be long gone by now. Tracking studies of wild bears done by Fish and Game would indicate it could easily have reached the Matanuska-Susitna area or the Kenai Peninsula.
But bears are smart animals that remember where they've been. It is possible this one, which was well-fed at the wildlife center, might decide to return if it gets hungry. Thus a baited, live-capture trap was set. "They're going to keep an eye out for it," Del Frate said.
Shaguyik is described by the center as a 300-pound blonde. She is likely to be the only bear -- or one of very few -- presently out running around in this winter of record snow in Southcentral Alaska. Del Frate said Fish and Game hasn't heard of any wild grizzlies emerging from their dens, though that should happen any day.
Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, said an aerial search for the missing grizzly turned up no sign of other bears out of their dens. But, she added, there is at least one black bear out in Anchorage. Black bears -- the smaller, more docile cousins of grizzlies -- tend to den at lower elevations in Alaska forests, while the grizzlies take to the hills for the winter. Given Anchorage's record snow, biologists are expecting black bears to emerge before grizzlies this year.
One is already out in Anchorage's Far North Bicentennial Park, Coltrane said, and it has been attracting gawkers. People, she cautioned, should remember not to approach bears. And they should recognize that attempting to feed bears is against the law. You could be cited, or worse, mauled.
Wildlife biologists warn that approaching black bears is risky, and approaching grizzly bears -- naturally more aggressive animals -- is dangerous. Hours of daylight are the primary signal to bears, but there is so much snow at higher elevations that denning bears may not know the season. According to the wildlife center, Shaguyik disappeared into one of these areas with lots of snow.
"She was last seen in the mountains between the Placer and Portage valleys," the press release said. Snow there is tens of feet deep, making the area popular with snowmachine riders and cross-country skiers this time of year. Riders of fat-tired bikes have even taken to roaming the Portage-Twentymile-Placer backcountry when the snow crust gets firm enough to support them in the spring. Everyone should be on the watch for the big, shaggy blonde.
"Even though Shaguyik has been in captivity most of her life," Miller warned, "the public should treat this bear with extreme caution. Because of its habituation, Shaguyik may not respond the same as wild bears (that would) avoid human interaction. If someone sees the bear, keep your distance and contact the authorities."
The bear was spayed, but she still has big teeth and potentially deadly claws. She lacks a collar or ear-tags, so she looks just like any other wild bear. Miller said she is the first bear that's ever escaped from the wildlife center.
"Our operating procedures are rigorous and safety for our staff and animals is always our top priority," he said in the press release.
No one has said why the public was not alerted for almost a week. Sunny weather in the area early last week and on Sunday significantly boosted backcountry recreation use and the opportunity for someone to run into the bear, although there were no reports of that.
If you do see a bear in the days ahead, call Fish and Game at 267-2811, the wildlife center at 907-301-7942 or the Alaska State Troopers at 911.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com