Jeff Johnson knew a bear was in the area. He had just looked outside to see the black bear scratching around near the chicken coop at his Eagle River home high on Glacier View Drive about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
But as Johnson approached the coop, garden hoe in hand, he began to think it might have gone. He saw the mesh surrounding the chicken yard was trampled, but the only thing he could hear were the six egg-laying chickens squawking inside the plywood coop.
Then he looked through a window.
"It looked like he was sitting, but it was kind of dark, and he was just gobbling down a chicken, had it in his mouth and just swallowing," Johnson said. "I was just shocked that he was in there. I didn't even think of the possibility."
The roughly 150-pound bear had scrambled through a small coop window about 5 feet off the ground. Claw marks showed on the plywood below it.
Johnson, 47, slapped a piece of plywood against the window -- the bear's only apparent exit -- and held on to keep it inside. Then he kicked open a small, ground-level chicken door to give the hens an escape.
"I'm holding the plywood thinking, 'What am I going to do?' " Johnson said. "And then its head starts coming out."
The bear's head went back inside the small door and the animal began bumping against the plywood patch a few times, though not very powerfully, he said. His son, 20-year-old Seth Johnson, called police and jumped out a first-floor window with a rifle, passing it off to his father, who then held the plywood to the window with one hand and pointed the .30-06 at the door below with the other.
"I thought, well, if he sticks his head out again, it's a safe backdrop and that should do him in. So he stuck his head out again," Johnson said. "I expected it to just be dead instantly."
After the shot, however, the bear ducked back inside. Johnson called for his wife, Karen Johnson, 37, to help pin the plywood in place, making sure their feet were safely away from the door. Johnson began nailing shut the coop's window and door, worried the injured bear would escape, he said.
"You could hear thrashing in there," Johnson said. "All the chickens went silent. They were still squawking after the shot, but I thought it was still eating away in there. I wasn't sure what was going on."
The bear had broken the light in the coop, so they shined a flashlight through the chicken door and saw the bear lying on the ground. When Anchorage police arrived on scene, they found the animal wounded but still alive, police spokeswoman Anita Shell said.
"They could see the bear through the opening and hear rapid breathing," Shell said. "The bear was not dead, and so the officers finished him off with their shotguns."
Johnson brought the bear to the state Department of Fish and Game on Thursday morning. Rick Sinnott, Anchorage-area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, said the shooting appeared to be a legitimate case of defense of life or property.
"Once the bear's in the chicken coop, there's not a whole lot you can do," Sinnott said.
The case is the second of the season in which a bear has been killed in defense of life or property in the area, he said. About two weeks ago, a young brown bear that charged a pet dog at an Eagle River home was also shot and killed, he said. There were no injuries in that case.
Johnson said he regretted having to shoot the bear and that he was preparing to install a solar-powered electric fence around the chicken coop in an effort to prevent bears from getting in again.
"I've decided anyway that if this happens again we're getting rid of the chickens," Johnson said. "I'm a hunter, but it kills me to shoot something like that."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.
By JAMES HALPIN