Four of five black bears relocated from an Anchorage neighborhood were shot and killed after one reportedly entered a vehicle Sunday at a Hope campground, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said Monday.
A biologist received a call around 10 p.m. reporting a bear entering a van, said Ken Marsh, Fish and Game spokesperson. The report followed a series of calls about the black bears raiding trash, charging humans and even killing chickens in Hope, a small town on Turnagain Arm.
"They've been getting bolder and they have been reportedly showing some signs of aggression," Marsh said. "They may have actually bluff-charged people, and this was kind of the last straw. We needed to go ahead and take action for public safety reasons."
Biologists, along with the public, have closely watched the sow and her four cubs since they arrived in Anchorage's Government Hill neighborhood in April for the second year in a row. The bears rummaged through garbage cans, climbed backyard fences and, occasionally, drew groups of onlookers.
Within a few days, Fish and Game announced that because of public safety concerns, it would kill the black bears. But the decision sparked public outcry as well as a call from Gov. Bill Walker to the state Fish and Game commissioner. Walker asked if the agency could relocate the bears instead of euthanizing them.
Over several days, Fish and Game captured all five bears. A contracted helicopter airlifted them to the Chickaloon Flats area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The move cost an estimated $9,400, Fish and Game said in May.
Soon after the relocation, the bears walked into Hope, a community separated from the flats by a roughly 15-mile barrier of mountains and a rocky coastline.
"This is why we're hesitant -- or rarely choose -- to relocate bears like this, because they have a very strong urge to return to their place of origin," Marsh said. "In this case, they continue to seek out human-supplied foods and continue their old ways in a new community or a camp or what have you."
Marsh said Fish and Game considered moving the bears to the Prince William Sound region but ultimately decided against it because of active black bear baiting in the area, a habitat that differs from Anchorage's and the distance involved.
Fish and Game had received permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move the bears to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where "the physical barrier of Turnagain Arm made it unlikely for bears to return to Anchorage," Marsh said.
"The way bears travel, they can cover a great deal of ground. There are very few places in Alaska suitable for black bears where they wouldn't be able to encounter some sort of camp or community within a pretty short time," he said.
Fish and Game outfitted the five black bears with bulky tracking collars. Hope residents reported black bears wearing collars coming into town, leaving and then showing up again. During some visits, the bears triggered trouble.
At one point, Fish and Game suspected that at least one of the black bears snagged several chickens from a coop in Hope. The U.S. Forest Service later restricted camping at the Porcupine Campground after the bears apparently tore up an unattended tent that had food inside.
On Sunday at the same campground, which sits at the end of the Hope Highway, a black bear entered a van through an open door. A person was inside, Marsh said.
"It was at the end of a long day and the individual wanted to relax. They turned around to find that one of the bears had entered the van," he said. "So, that was very close quarters -- feet, maybe even inches."
The person yelled and the bear ran, Marsh said. The bear, reportedly, was one of the yearlings that Fish and Game had relocated from Government Hill.
Officials with Fish and Game and the Forest Service responded to the campground late Sunday. They found the five bears walking on a road and followed them until they got into a wooded area, Marsh said.
They shot four of the five bears, including the sow. One of the yearlings escaped into dense woods, he said.
As of Monday, neither agency had plans to kill that yearling. The yearling, Marsh said, is at the age where it should separate from its mother. Fish and Game will continue to track it, he said.
Gov. Walker said in a statement that the decision to kill the bears was made out "of an abundance of caution" by Fish and Game and the Forest Service.
"I respect the judgment made by wildlife biologists to ensure safety for the residents and visitors of the Hope region," Walker said in a statement sent by his press secretary.
Lynne Skogstad, who has homes in Hope and Government Hill, said she cried when she first heard about the deaths of the four black bears. She said Fish and Game should have relocated the bears farther from town.
"I really feel that Fish and Game set those bears up," she said. "Alaska is a big state. They could have relocated them somewhere else."
Stephanie Kesler, president of the Government Hill Community Council, said she was grateful that Fish and Game tried to relocate the bears but that it appeared the bears had grown habituated to human-provided food.
"I'm sad at the outcome but it's not a surprise," she said.
Fish and Game has donated the carcasses of the three yearlings to the University of Alaska Anchorage. Ryan Harrod, assistant professor at UAA's Department of Anthropology, said he will use the bears for his forensic anthropology class.
By Monday afternoon, the bears had already been buried on university-owned property, Harrod said. In a year or so, students will dig them up and study their remains. They will serve as stand-ins for human bodies.
"Bears are helpful -- similar size and similar hands," Harrod said. After his class, another professor will use the bears for further archaeological work, he said: "Everything's for science."
The black bear sow's hide has been recovered and will be preserved, Marsh said.
"It will probably go to the annual Fur Rondy -- to the hide and horn auction, I would assume," he said.
Each year at the State Hide and Horn Auction, Fish and Game disposes of hundreds of animal parts it and Alaska State Troopers have accumulated. If that's where the black bear hide ends up, it will go to the highest bidder.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing