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Photographer charged with feeding bears. Does Alaska have a new 'bear man'?

Craig Medred
Charlie Vandergaw's friends. Bears milling around near the airstrip near Charlie Vandergaw's Yentna River cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
Charlie Vandergaw. Charlie Vandergaw and a conditioned grizzly at his Yentna River cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
No fear. A black bear hangs out with two girls at Vandergaw's cabin. (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game)
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
In court: defense. Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald gestures during Charlie Vandergaw's sentencing on Thursday, April 8.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sean Farley. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley testified for the prosecution.
Stephen Nowers photo
Charlie Vandergaw. Charlie Vandergaw at his sentencing on Thursday, April 8.
Stephen Nowers photo

Another Alaska bear whisperer has been exposed, this time on the outskirts of the capital city of Juneau.

As with world-famous "bear man" Charlie Vandergaw from the Yentna River valley west of Anchorage, 65-year-old Arnold W. Hanger -- "Arnie'' to all his friends -- apparently spent years trying to make friends of the bears along Lynn Canal north of the community of 31,000 that serves as the seasonal home of the Alaska Legislature.

Alaska Wildlife Troopers have now charged him with three counts of illegally feeding game.

Like Vandergaw, Hanger fed the bears dog food and other human-manufactured treats to attract them to his home just south of Tee Harbor, some of his friends said. Most of them did not want to be identified. Among them are retirees from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska State Troopers.

How long some of them might have been aware of what Hanger was doing is unclear, but the feeding has reportedly been going on for years.

"It started with photography," said one of Hanger's friends. "He was doing it right there ... outside the picture window."

Troopers say Hanger managed to co-opt 10 to 15 bears into being his friends by food conditioning them. Some sources say there might have been as many as 17 bears involved, all black bears, including a cinnamon-colored variant that is fairly common in the 49th state.

A permit is required from Fish and Game to legally feed bears, wolves, moose and some other wildlife. The permits are usually only granted to wildlife rehabilitation facilities.

Vandergaw, a retired school teacher, managed an ever-changing menagerie of more than two dozen black and grizzly bears. They spent the summer's hanging out at homestead far from the nearest neighbors and tens of miles from Anchorage.

Vandergaw befriended some of his bears, invited them into his cabin and taught them tricks. Though he agreed with state wildlife biologists who said this was a risky proposition, he was never seriously injured by a bear. How far Hanger might have gone in training his bears is unclear, though he shared Vandergaw's passion for photography, and Vandergaw said training the bears made them better models.

Vandergaw pursued his bear passion -- an addiction, really, he once admitted -- in a remote area that could only be reached by airplane.

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Where will the bears go next?

That minimized the potential for his bears to cause trouble for others. Hanger, according to troopers, attracted his bears to his home along the regularly traveled Glacier Highway.

Neighbor Bruce Baker said he wonders what will happen now that Hanger's bear feeding has stopped. Baker, another retired Fish and Game employee, lives about a half mile from Hanger's home and questions where bears that are accustomed to getting handouts from people will go next in search of an easy meal.

Baker said he'd heard rumors that someone in his neighborhood had been feeding bears, but added that Hanger "wouldn't have been on my list of suspects. I was surprised to hear his name. He wasn't a person I'd be expecting to do this."

A Juneau writer acquainted with Hanger described him as "a very, very reclusive older guy. Arnie's a nice gentle guy" who just loves wildlife and photography. The writer, who did want his name used, said he had been to Hanger's home and was aware of the bears, but "I don't think it's nearly to the extent of Charlie (Vandergraw)."

The writer was hoping the authorities would go easy. Vandergaw was eventually fined $20,000, but he'd been previously ticketed for feeding bears and fought the state in an effort to continue feeding bears. He at one point obtained a bear-baiting permit, which allows hunters to put bait out to attract bears so they can be shot and killed.

Vandergaw thought he could use it as justification to keep feeding bears without shooting them. The plan didn't work.

Friends of Hanger said they don't expect him to contest his ticket.

Hanger's writer friend argued the photographer certainly shouldn't be punished as severely as a wolf poacher hauled into court in Juneau this spring, who, in the eyes of the writer, got off with a mere "slap on the wrist."

Another friend of Hanger's, and a fellow photographer, said Hanger just sort of got "caught up" in how easy the bear feeding made the photography, and for that reason couldn't seem to bring himself to stop feeding the bears. Vandergaw was also an avid photographer who cataloged a mind-boggling digital collection of bear photos. He took most of them largely for himself.

Hanger, who could not be reached for this story, had broader photographic interests.

Along with taking photographs of bears, he took pictures of a lot of other animals. He is credited with photos that appear in a 2007 "Alaska Digital Wildlife Photography Handbook," published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency, like its state counterpart, frowns on people habituating bears by feeding them.

Juneau biologist: Bears will decide what comes next

The bears, state wildlife biologists contend, become accustomed to looking to people for food, and that can end up making trouble for people who don't want bears hanging around their house as well as for the bears themselves. Alaska allows bears to be legally shot in what is called "defense of life and property," and dozens die that way each year while trying to get into people's food or homes.

Ryan Scott, the area wildlife biologist for Fish and Game in Juneau, said his agency was unaware of what Hanger was up to until he was nabbed by troopers, but "there's been a lot of bear activity out in that area." Scott is now involved in trying to undo what Hanger started. Once bears get handouts, they are prone to visit the feeding site over and over again looking for food.

Since Hanger was cited, Scott said he has talked with the man at length. He said Hanger seems remorseful, though their conversations have mainly been focused on trying to figure out how to keep the bears Hanger was feeding from becoming a problem for his neighbors.

The Tee Harbor-Lena Point area north of Juneau was once sparsely populated, but has become increasingly suburbanized over the years.

"Capturing and relocating that number of bears there is inefficient and probably isn't going to work," Scott said, and nobody wants to kill so many bears, anyway. So biologists have turned the whole operation into one big experiment. They have captured and tagged or radio-collared four bears so far, and they hope to capture and tag more. The bears will be followed. If they do become a nuisance, they will be killed. But if they can again learn to live around people with making trouble for people, they will be left alone.

"The bears will kind of tell the story of what happens," said Scott, who, like some other biologists, is having trouble getting his hands around the idea of bears as pets. "People's behavior around bears is interesting, to say the least," said Matt Robus, a former director of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation who's now retired in Juneau.

Robus said he was unaware of Hanger and his bears.

And so were a few of Hanger's friends. One of them, David Grafton, said he couldn't quite believe it. Grafton and Hanger were once neighbors.

"There was never 10-15 bears around there, then," he said. "We had a few of them around, but that was it. I know that Arnie shot a bear quite a few years ago that was in his yard. That was 10 or 15 years ago. The only thing that comes to mind with me and bears like this is Timothy Treadwell."

Treadwell was an aspiring actor from California who for years came north to Alaska's Katmai coast each summer to hang with the giant grizzly bears there. That ended in October 2003 when Treadwell and a girlfriend were killed and largely eaten by a bear in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

It was later revealed that Treadwell's summer antics at Katmai had included petting bears and baby-sitting cubs for some sows, which was documented in Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary, "Grizzly Man."

Treadwell revealed both how overrated the danger of bears had become; and simultaneously, how deadly they can be if not treated with the proper respect.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com