Events involving bears in the Municipality of Anchorage this summer -- including a mauling in June, three in July and the killing of a high-profile black bear sow -- have raised questions regarding the management of two associated issues: bears and risk. Specifically, how does the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manage Anchorage area black and brown bears, and what can the public do to mitigate risks associated with living among bears?
Anchorage's slogan "Big Wild Life" is inspired partly by the municipality's enormous size, its wildlife, and the active lifestyles many residents enjoy. Sprawling from the Knik River to Girdwood and west to Anchorage, the municipality is a Delaware-sized area of wilderness, sparsely settled suburbs, and densely populated urban centers. People here number roughly 300,000, and 92 percent surveyed in a 2009 study indicated wildlife was an important part of their community.
Bears are part of the package. Ranging from Anchorage's settled reaches to its wilderness periphery, brown and black bears are managed partly through hunting, with the majority of the municipality open to some bear hunting opportunity. Since 2008, hunters have harvested 287 black bears and 12 brown bears in Game Management Unit 14C, which includes the Anchorage Bowl.
Beyond hunting, bear management in Anchorage requires working as much with people as with bears. Biologists conduct research on bears -- and on residents' tolerance for bears; enforce laws created to minimize conflicts with bears, such as illegal disposal and storage of food and trash; lethally remove bears that pose safety risks; and provide public education about safety and protocol for living among bears.
Brown bears that aggressively defend food sources and those found in residential areas feeding on moose kills, trash, pet food, birdseed, livestock and illegally-dumped fish waste are frequently treated as public safety concerns. Black bears are less likely to aggressively defend a food source and are more likely to be monitored.
When necessary, our biologists or public safety officers kill bears that present safety concerns. So far this summer, biologists have killed two bears habituated to garbage: One was a brown bear on the Hillside, the other a black bear sow in the U-Med area. The black bear sow and its cubs drew crowds and media coverage for their casual regard for people. Unsecured trash kept the bears in the area and warnings from biologists for people to keep safe distances were repeatedly ignored. As throngs encroached, public safety concerns grew. The sow -- which was relocated by biologists last year, only to return -- was destroyed and the cubs captured for zoo placement.
Bear-human encounters are common and mostly benign in Anchorage. Bears are occasionally seen at a distance or rummaging through garbage. Prior to this summer, Anchorage has gone nearly two years with no verified bear attacks.
Whenever a person is injured by a bear, our biologists investigate. If the cause is determined unprovoked, every effort is made to kill the animal. If the cause is a bear acting defensively, lethal action is less likely. Our investigations suggest that each of this summer's mauling incidents were unrelated and circumstantial; none were attributed to unusually aggressive bears. We have seen no odd bear behaviors, no dramatic increase in bear numbers, and no lack of natural foods. Each case has, however, shared common threads.
In all instances, attack survivors traveled alone in remote forested areas and encountered brown bear sows with cubs. Surprised at close range, brown bear sows frequently act on reflex to neutralize a perceived threat and defend cubs before retreating. In three of the attacks, the survivors were knocked down and remained on the ground, minimizing any perceived threat. The sows all quickly left.
Knowing what to do during a bear attack enhances your odds of survival. In each of this summer's cases, cool heads prevailed and thankfully all survived.
When people make noise, travel in pairs or groups, stay alert, and know bear safety basics, they can greatly reduce their chances of surprise bear encounters. Bear spray can ward off attacks, and firearms -- used judiciously in proficient hands -- can be effective last-ditch resources. The best weapons in any bear encounter are being aware of your situation and knowing how to react. Contact us to learn more, or view the bear safety tips and videos provided on the website at www.alaskabears.alaska.gov.
In Anchorage, bears are a fact of life -- as are moose, icy winter roads, occasional earthquakes and many other regional distinctions. Just as Alaskans know to buckle-up, slow down and use good winter tires to avoid accidents while driving on snow and ice, we can more safely enjoy the greenbelts and backcountry around us by learning how to live among bears.
Enjoy the Big Wild Life. Live smart. Be bear aware.
Biologist Larry Van Daele, Ph.D., has worked with bears in Alaska for more than 30 years. He is regional supervisor for Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Southcentral wildlife region.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.