I've been aroused from my winter den by the noise generated by Bill Sherwonit's Nov. 28 commentary on the high numbers of bears shot in Anchorage in 2017.
Sherwonit reported that hunters killed 42 black and five brown bears, while officials and local residents shot 31 black and three brown bears in defense of life and property. Vehicles killed an additional bear of each species, bringing the total body count for 2017 to 83. That is the second-highest bear kill in Anchorage history, the record being 96 bears in 2008.
Bears can be hunted throughout most of Chugach State Park and on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. This year officials shot five times as many black bears, and the public shot twice as many, as the previous 10-year average (2007-2016). Hunters shot about the same number of black bears and twice as many brown bears in 2017 as the previous 10-year average.
These aren't record numbers, except in the unusually high number killed by officials and in defense of life and property. Hunters shot 66 black bears in 2008 and 22 bears died from other human-related causes. Officials, residents and vehicles killed a record nine brown bears in 2012, while hunters shot only one. In the last decade (2008-2017) hunters have shot 408 black and 26 brown bears, while 165 black and 43 brown bears were killed in non-hunting incidents, for a total of 642 bears in Anchorage.
According to management reports for the Anchorage area, Fish and Game's harvest objective of 42 black bears has been exceeded in eight of the past 11 years. The most recent management report concluded that "the recent high rates of harvest coupled with a high percentage of females in the harvest suggest that we are most likely harvesting at a rate that cannot be sustained for an extended duration."
So Sherwonit has a right to be concerned, but expressing his concern has drawn a knee-jerk response from some members of the community.
Jim Lieb, a retired Fish and Game biologist and former colleague, wrote a letter to the editor (Dec. 1) in which he took exception to Sherwonit's defense of bears and proposed, for the umpteenth time, that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game authorize an "intensive" bear hunt in Anchorage to reduce the number of bears in the city.
Most of the Municipality of Anchorage is wildlife habitat that is encompassed by a state park and a large military reservation. These areas are bear habitat, and the bears that cause problems in developed portions of the city duck in and out of the natural areas at will. Fish and Game's mission is typically to maintain or enhance wildlife populations in natural areas. Lieb's aim to reduce bear populations — presumably substantially — runs counter to that goal.
Rather than simply blaming bears as a universal problem and nominating hunters as a generic solution, let's consider the nuances of hunting bears in an urban area.
The only way to significantly reduce bear populations in Anchorage by hunting is to shoot most of the bears in Chugach State Park. Most of the people who hike in the park like the idea of encountering a bear, or at least knowing that bears live there. Several Fish and Game surveys have shown that most Anchorage residents feel the same way about bears in town. Lieb is in the minority.
In the past couple of decades, much of Chugach State Park has been opened to bear hunting, not necessarily to reduce bear populations but to allow additional hunting opportunities and to make surviving bears a little more wary of people. Those hunts have significantly increased bear harvests.
Lieb knows bears are hunted in Chugach State Park and on JBER. He is advocating a hunt in the developed portions of the city. Where would that happen? In your neighborhood? Do we really want hunters shooting rifles in our backyards?
Shotguns with slugs, muzzleloaders, and bows have shorter ranges than modern rifles, but are less lethal. Bears aren't particularly easy to kill and frequently run and hide when wounded. Do we really want wounded bears roaming around Anchorage?
Is Fish and Game going to allow bear hunting on private property? Or just in city parks and greenbelts? Either way, stray gunfire and wounded bears will impact nearby neighborhoods.
The most efficient way to hunt bears is by using bait stations. Do you want a bait station concentrating bears near your house? How about in Far North Bicentennial or Kincaid Park? Are you tired of me asking stupid questions yet?
The most dangerous bears are brown bear sows with cubs. Is Fish and Game going to authorize hunters to shoot sows with cubs in Anchorage? Cubs too? I can't imagine many hunters signing up for that opportunity.
Lieb's proposal for an "intensive" bear hunt in Anchorage implies that the city is under assault. But nobody has ever been mauled downtown or in a neighborhood. Most of Anchorage's bear maulings have occurred in Chugach State Park and on JBER — in other words, in bear country.
It's not easy for hunters to find bears in mountainous, forested terrain with few roads without baiting. Fish and Game might be able to significantly reduce bear populations by flooding Chugach State Park and JBER with hunters and allowing the use of bait stations all summer long, in addition to holding an "intensive" bear hunt in Eagle River, Chugiak, Hillside, Muldoon and other developed areas.
That might make Lieb very happy. Of course, he lives in Palmer.
A more reasonable approach would be for Fish and Game professionals to monitor the situation and shoot bears if and when they exhibit dangerous behaviors. That's exactly what's being done now.
Rather than ranting about bears in town and suggesting people contact Fish and Game to demand an inner-city hunt, let's put on our thinking caps and ask why the bears are in town. You guessed it. Mostly because of garbage and birdseed.
Compared to conducting a controversial and dangerous bear hunt in the city every year, asking – and if necessary forcing – people to keep garbage and birdseed away from bears is relatively easy and not at all dangerous to people or bears.
Lieb wrote, "Bears do not belong in dense urban environments." I agree. So when are we going to stop luring them in with our garbage?
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Email, email@example.com.
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