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Are more bears roaming Anchorage, Alaska?

Craig Medred

Some questions have answers so obvious and simple that people overlook them in pursuit of greater explanations. With bears in the news once again in Alaska's largest city, one of those questions is popping up again and again.

Question: Why are there so many bears in Anchorage?

Answer: Because Anchorage residents stopped killing them at every opportunity.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists can debate how many bears there are in Anchorage now versus how many there were back when, and they have debated. The answer is that no one knows. Bears are hard to census.

It could be there is the same number of bears now as then, but more people simply see them more often. It could be, but that is a distinction without a difference for the average Anchorage resident. For most, seeing more bears must mean that more bears populate the area. All of which goes straight back to the fact local residents stopped killing the animals at every opportunity. Things changed when that happened.

There is nothing a grizzly bear fears more than the smell of a man, the late Dick Proenneke observed in one of his films about life in the Alaska wild. This observation was no doubt true when Proenneke wandered the wilds of what is now Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in the late 1960s, '70s and '80s. It is no longer true in large parts of Alaska and most especially not so in and around Anchorage.

Attitudes toward bears have changed significantly in Alaska's largest city over the past three decades. Even 20 years ago, if someone had a problem with a bear on the edge of Anchorage, the bear was shot, with thanks from neighbors. Not so anymore. An increasing numbers of residents living in the bear-dense Anchorage Hillside community are clueless about where and how to shoot a bear if, indeed, they could bring themselves to shoot it.

And if a bear was shot, there might well be someone in their neighborhood likely to pitch a fit. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane took some heat last summer after she killed a couple of black bear cubs to save them from a slow death by starvation or an ugly one by predation after their mother was killed.

"They were just tiny little defenseless babies,'' one woman said. "I really didn't think they'd come out and kill them.''

Urban Alaskans do love their bears, and the bears would appear to be catching on.

Coltrane already this year has been forced to kill a grizzly because it showed little fear of humans, and grizzly bears that have lost their fear of humans are dangerous. Bears just trying to be playful can seriously hurt humans, as former bear man Charlie Vandergaw could attest. He made pets of bears at his homestead across Cook Inlet from Anchorage before the state hauled him into court to put an end to it. His "pets'' roughed him up a time or two, but Vandergaw said it was just because they got carried away at play.

Vandergaw was a tough old coot. His idea of "playful'' might cause heart attacks for lesser men. But Vandergaw's decades of hanging with the bears did well document that even if you can't ever really, truly make friends with the bears, you can convince the bears that people aren't much of a threat. Vandergaw's place was the opposite of Proenneke's. At Vandergaw's place, bears did not fear the smell of man; they almost welcomed it.

Anchorage bears, judging from the radio-collar tracking studies of Fish and Game bear researcher Sean Farley, now fall somewhere between these two extremes. Farley has tracked grizzlies roaming almost everywhere in and around Anchorage. Some regularly follow the Campbell Creek greenbelt into Midtown. A 15-year-old grizzly doing the same in the Chester Creek greenbelt was hit and killed by a car only a mile or so from downtown four years ago.

The bears clearly live among the people in Anchorage. That they are seen with certain regularity should come as no surprise. Either there are more bears in Anchorage now, or the bear population hasn’t grown but makes far less effort at hiding. Or there are more bears and they put less effort into trying to stay hidden. However you parse the numbers, each situation is tied to the simple explanation that humans stopped killing Anchorage bears at every opportunity, and therefore more bears are perceived to exist in the city.

And, as always, there are even more bears in Anchorage in the spring than at any other time of the year.

Question: Why are there more bears in Anchorage in the spring?

Answer: Because we can see them.

Once the leaves pop out on the alder and willow brush, and the wild grasses start to grow head high, the bears sort of disappear into the foliage around the 49th state's largest city where, for most citizens at least, a bear really doesn't exist if it isn't seen. The process of "greening up'' as it is called in the 49th state is now rapidly under way. So it probably won't be but a week or two before someone somewhere on the Anchorage Hillside is asking: "How come we never seem to see bears in the neighborhood anymore?"

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com