Humans and bears sharing the Alaska landscape: the marvelous and the tragic

Upon my return to Anchorage from an exhilarating trip to McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in mid-July, I was jolted by recent local headlines and the accompanying stories, published in the ADN: "3 bears killed in area of maulings" and "Fish and Game kills 4 black bears at Anchorage campground."

As most Alaskans likely know, the McNeil River sanctuary hosts the world's largest — and most amazing — gathering of brown bears, numbering in the dozens of animals. During my visit this summer, as many as 47 bears were counted at one time along McNeil River and its famous falls, where they congregate to fish for salmon. Seventy-two different individual animals were observed and identified by staff in a single day.

This gathering of bears on the upper Alaska Peninsula is remarkable enough. But what is even more stunning is that for several hours every day throughout much of July and August, these bears go about their lives in the close company of people, who watch from two viewing pads. Now and then, the bears' movements bring them within a few feet of those pads and neither bears nor humans fear the other, because they've learned it's safe to share each other's company. Still, watching the bears interact with each other, there's no question these remain wild, ferocious animals.

It's been my pleasure and privilege to visit McNeil River several times and I have not only peered through the extraordinary window into the lives of these wild and fascinating creatures, but have also experienced their great tolerance of humans. And I have participated in the system that has made it all work for more than 50 years. It's a system that depends on human predictability and responsibility. One of the keys is that human numbers are kept small (no more than 12 people watching the bears beyond the campground, including staff) and hours spent in the viewing areas are predictable (late morning through early evening), as is the human behavior. Another essential element: Food is kept out of the relationship. In short, as long-time and now retired sanctuary manager Larry Aumiller has put it, people become something of a neutral presence to the bears, neither a source of food nor a threat.

The promise and beauty of McNeil is this, Aumiller has further commented: When people are willing to make some compromises, bears and humans can peacefully coexist.

There are, of course, huge differences between McNeil River and the Anchorage area. The sanctuary is a place of great wildness, with a small and seasonal human settlement surrounded by large expanses of wilderness. Here, the overriding philosophy has long been that the bears come first.

Anchorage, meanwhile, is an urban center devoted to humans and their activities. And yet our city includes many "natural areas" — parks and greenbelts — that are home to a wide array of wild animals. Anchorage is also bounded by a large, magnificent wildland, Chugach State Park, often called the city's "backyard wilderness." All of the park and much of Anchorage are "bear country." From spring through fall, bears move in and out. Some spend much of their lives within the city.


This summer, I watched an adult black bear walk down my West Anchorage street. A neighbor later told me the bear had cut through my yard. This didn't frighten me; it added pleasure and excitement to my day.

I love that I live in bear country. And I'm hardly alone. Multiple surveys done by Fish and Game have shown that most of Anchorage's human residents appreciate the fact that we city dwellers share the local landscape with bears.

Of course, there are others who fear bears — largely, I suspect, because of the stereotypes they carry of bears simply being large and dangerous predators. And some people believe that cities "belong" to people; they don't like having to make compromises for the sake of bears. They stubbornly refuse to change their problematic — and sometimes, illegal — behaviors.

And so we end up with entire family groups getting killed for reasons of public safety, when in fact the bears had done nothing "wrong," nothing to warrant their killing.

Take that family of four black bears, for example, the one whose mom had torn into a tent at Centennial Campground. By all accounts, the female and her cubs hadn't harmed or even threatened anyone. Their crime was that they learned to associate food with people, including unsecured food left on campground picnic tables and sweetened drinks (and likely food) left in tents.

Anyone who lives in Alaska knows — or should know — that you don't leave food in tents; you don't leave food lying around outside your tent. Bad human behavior led to the bears behaving "badly" by our standards, our rules. As so often happens, a people problem led to what we call problem bears. And so the bears were killed. To me, that's a sad and inexcusable thing.

The people who broke campground rules — city campgrounds have rules about food storage, don't they? — should pay for their gross negligence in some way. But that seems unlikely to happen. Besides, the damage has been done, the bears are dead. And so it goes.

Then there's the brown bear family, three bears killed for no good reason — simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the South Fork Eagle River area a few weeks after another brown bear female had killed one person and severely mauled a second, who was searching for the first.
Fish and Game employees insist they had no choice except to kill the three bears, though there was no evidence linking the family to the maulings. The animals presented an unacceptable public safety risk, the argument goes, simply because the mama bear might have been the earlier killer. We've been told it wouldn't work to take a DNA sample and keep track of the bear until results came back. Too risky.

It's simple, black-and-white thinking: human safety comes first and there's no shortage of brown bears in the area. Who can argue with that?

Yet to me, this killing too is a kind of tragedy, a regrettable thing following in the wake of that earlier tragic encounter.

The killing of that family only adds to the long list of questions I've had since the June attacks. Did Fish and Game and local public safety personnel really believe the female with cubs was a predatory threat? That makes little sense to me, given what's been reported, what we've been told. In fact, the mom and cubs' behavior during recent close encounters — at least as reported in the ADN — hardly suggests predatory intent.

And why, after more than a month has passed since the maulings, is there a new and sudden urgency to locate the "killer bear"? Simply because of some other unsettling encounters that elevated people's fears?

I also continue to wonder about authorities' apparent conclusion that the "killer bear" was behaving in a predatory way. Was there unreported evidence that the attacking brown bear had fed on the deceased person's body? And when the bear attacked the searcher, he and his two companions reportedly drove the animal off, scared it away, according to the newspaper. That doesn't sound like a predatory bear, or one defending a carcass, its kill.

So much about the bear attacks, authorities' conclusions, and the on-and-off-and-on-again search for the bear still seem unclear, including how many brown bears will be killed because of public fears before the "right" bear is found. If it's found. To me, every unnecessary kill compounds the tragedy.

One other aspect of this year's fatal bear attack merits comment: the media coverage. Talk about sensationalized reporting. It seems particularly telling that the newspaper's editors not only made the story above-the-fold, front-page news, but they topped it with a large, bold, double-deck headline as big as any I've seen in many months: "Bear kills hiker in Eagle River." And we wonder why many people are so afraid of bears?

Yes, it was a jolting juxtaposition: days spent in the close company of brown bears at McNeil River sanctuary, where the bears come first and are treated with great respect, even awe; and my adopted hometown, where we seem incapable of learning how to peacefully coexist with bears, even though we claim to be the more intelligent species.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."