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Family of black bears is again roaming Government Hill

For the second year, a family of five black bears is roaming Government Hill, a densely populated neighborhood one bridge away from downtown Anchorage.

"We don't have one bear that's a problem," said Rebecca Rogers, who lives in a bluff-side home overlooking what she says has become a bear highway. "We have five."

Rogers says an adult female sow lunged at her young Rottweiler on Friday afternoon, the first sighting of the year in the neighborhood.

"She swatted at my dog," Rogers said. "She was standing on hind legs, popping her jaws, saliva coming out."

Then, on Sunday, the sow and four yearling cubs were seen near Cedar and Dogwood streets on the east side of the neighborhood.

The community council tweeted a warning.

"ALERT!" read Sunday's tweet. "5 black bears are actively roaming in Government Hill."

By early afternoon Sunday, the bears had gathered in a ravine near the Northpointe Bluff subdivision.

One bear climbed a tall alder while the others shuffled around, eventually finding their way to garbage bins.

Residents said the bears appear to be the same ones that spent most of last summer on Government Hill, though wildlife biologists couldn't confirm that Sunday.

"Being right next to base, a lot of bears move in and out of Government Hill," said David Saalfeld, a regional wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "But it could be the same bear and cubs. The bear last year had ear tags."

Government Hill neighbors and the bears have coexisted peacefully for a remarkably long time, said community council president Stephanie Kesler.

But she thinks a happy ending is unlikely.

"We're a postage stamp neighborhood. To have five bears in a small area with a bunch of people and kids and pets and dogs, even if everybody is on their best behavior -- sadly I think it's not going to end well for the bears," she said.

Residents say they first saw a lone adult female bear during the summer of 2013.

The next spring a female with what appeared to be four young cubs showed up, Kesler said.

A litter of four cubs is "not unheard of" in Anchorage, Saalfeld said.

"We've had four around town several times," he said.

In 2014, "(the bears) were on the hill all summer," she said. "Basically from the beginning of summer all the way to August or September."

Government Hill -- surrounded by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the Port of Anchorage and the industrial area along Ship Creek -- attracts wildlife through the open spaces of its neighboring military base, said Saalfeld. The bears that spent last summer on the hill seemed to return to base when natural foods like devil's club and berries were ripe.

The close-knit neighborhood took steps to make sure people were putting garbage away and being careful with bird feeders and other food sources that could attract bears, Kesler said.

"We've tried to be on our best bear behavior," she said. "We know trash is what really attracts bears."

But trash problems persisted. Kesler said some residents don't have garages or an indoor space to store trash.

Solid Waste Services, the trash pickup service for the neighborhood, doesn't currently offer bear-proof canisters, Kesler said.

The community council recently passed a resolution asking Solid Waste Services to add bear-resistant trash bins as an option, she said.

"Even though we worked very hard last summer, there were still lots of bear encounters," Kesler said.

Rogers said the sow last year broke into her Arctic entry and into a freezer, eating frozen vegetables and apple juice before being chased off.

She said she's afraid to let her kids play outside while the bears are around.

Saalfeld said Fish and Game biologists would investigate any reported changes in behavior by the bears. Black bears get into trouble and may need to removed when they show changes in behavior, he said.

"We rarely see any aggression from black bears."

As always, it's all about food sources: Securing trash, putting away birdseed and being vigilant about barbecue grills, dog food and other bear enticements will go a long way toward the Government Hill bear family having a shot at a future away from humans, he said.

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