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Government Hill bears spared after request from governor

A black bear sow and four cubs rummaging through trash in the Anchorage neighborhood of Government Hill were saved from euthanasia Saturday after a phone call from Gov. Bill Walker to the commissioner of Fish and Game.

Walker asked whether the bears, whose pending deaths inspired passionate public outcry both in Alaska and Outside, could be relocated rather than shot. Garbage cans in the densely populated neighborhood are not sufficiently bear-proofed and those opposed to killing the bears argued the animals should not be punished for taking advantage of an easy food source.

"I'm sure there will be plenty of criticism about the governor getting involved in this," Walker said. "But I'm a person too. I have a soft spot for individuals in circumstances not of their own making."

Walker, a lifelong Alaskan, said he has never hunted bears and did not consider public sentiment when making the call to Sam Cotten, commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game, though a Fish and Game press release later Saturday mentioned the "waves of requests from the public to spare" the bears. Walker said he has had "no input" regarding the bears from his children or four grandchildren.

"I'm here in Juneau being inundated with budget issues and having to say no to all these programs," Walker said. "I felt these bears had done nothing wrong and just thought it was the right thing to do."

"It wasn't like he told us not to go ahead," Cotten said. "He wanted to know if there were alternatives and whether we could look into doing something else."

The sow and year-old cubs will likely be trapped and trucked about 60 miles southeast to Portage Valley, Cotten said.

"It's not uncommon for a bear once moved to return," Cotten said. "Perhaps if you give them a couple of mountains to cross, they won't come back."

Euthanasia is the normal fate of bears habituated to foraging for food or lingering near people in highly populated neighborhoods or urban parks in Alaska. The saving of the Government Hill bears does not mean an automatic reprieve for others that lose their natural wariness of humans.

"There are a lot of things that contribute to this unusual circumstance," said Cotten. "It doesn't mean we're going to move every bear. It's a decision made on a case-by-case basis."

Cotten did not think the cost of moving one family of bears would be significant, but expenses would quickly mount if bear relocation became normal state policy.

"There are a lot of bears so it would be expensive if you had somebody doing it full time," Cotten said.

Walker said his request to look for alternatives to killing the bears does not foreshadow any policy changes at Fish and Game, nor is it a veiled criticism of the department.

"This is a one-time situation," Walker said. "I thought it was appropriate to not take things out on the bears."

Walker never issued an order about relocating the bears, as was initially reported by other media outlets.

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