Collisions Take Toll on Bears

CASUALTIES: Six bears have died on or near local roads this year; others shot


Doug O'Hara / Anchorage Daily News / October 13, 2003

 

Fewer bears were reported raiding garbage and bird seed in Anchorage this season, but a different kind of bear hazard emerged: collisions.

Four brown bears and two black bears died on or near local roads. That led this year to the highest known brown bear mortality in Anchorage -- a total of six, including two sows with cubs -- since bear hunting was prohibited from most of the city three decades ago.

The mixed news arrives as a group of government managers and biologists has begun drawing up maps of bear habitat along with recommendations on how the city's land use laws might be changed to conserve the local bears.

A report from the Anchorage Bear Committee will probably be presented to city officials within the next few months, said state biologist Rick Sinnott.

Anchorage is one of the largest urban areas in the United States where housing overlaps bear habitat. It is home or next door to an estimated 250 black bears and about 60 grizzlies.

Over the past decade, many of those animals have learned to forage for food in neighborhoods. As a result, more than 100 bears have been shot as problem bears since 1991, including 90 black bears.

But with only a few weeks remaining before bruins start digging winter dens, only four black bears have been shot seeking food or bothering pets this year; another black bear was captured on Elmendorf Air Force Base and sent to Fairbanks for research.

The loss of five black bears ties with 2002 as the lowest number since 1994.

One brown bear sow was killed after charging a hiker on private land in Potter Valley. The bear had at least one cub, which would have died later without its mother, biologists said. The loss of two brown bears through shooting was about average for a season in the Anchorage area.

This was one of the best years in a decade for dealing with aggressive or garbage-seeking bears, said Sinnott, the city's management biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

He and other wildlife advocates say that, in response to two years of educational campaigns, more people have been properly stowing garbage and other potential bear food.

"It's two years in a row that we've had good success of not very many (killings in defense of life and property), after a decade of having much higher than normal," Sinnott said. "That's pretty good."

The refuse collection company placed red tags on trash cans that had been disturbed by bears. And volunteers with Defenders of Wildlife placed 6,000 door hangers this summer with bear advice, targeting neighborhoods and campgrounds when bears were seen hanging around, said Karen Deatherage, the defenders' program associate for Anchorage.

Plenty of people called state biologists with reports of bears, indicating that the population has not dropped, Sinnott said.

"I think it's the people who are behaving themselves," he said. "The bears are there because of the garbage, and it's so easy to keep the bears out of the garbage if we just take a few precautions."

By contrast, the traffic carnage was bizarre and horrifying.

In June, a 4-year-old male black bear was killed by a panel truck while crossing the Glenn Highway near Ship Creek. A month later, on July 16, a yearling male bear dashed in front of an Enstar Natural Gas truck on Rabbit Creek Road and was crippled with a broken wrist and ripped front leg, according to Sinnott.

"Employee jumped out, tackled it and tied it to a tree with yellow electrical wiring," Sinnott wrote in a report. "When we arrived, it was wide awake and biting and clawing at the wire."
Because it was obvious the bear was injured too badly to forage or recover, Sinnott decided he had to kill the animal. He used a shotgun; it was an awful moment, he said later.

"It was a car collision," he said. "But I hate to shoot things, especially from close range, right in the head when they're looking at you."

Two days later, a 31/2-year-old female brown bear was found alive with its abdomen split open just off Mile 11 of Eagle River Road. It was found by a ranger from Chugach State Park and later killed by a state trooper.

A lactating sow died only three weeks ago on the Glenn Highway near Chugiak High School after getting struck by a vehicle. A few hours later, a 9-month-old cub was seen running around the playground of the Birchwood ABC school.

Sinnott assumed the cub was from the sow and was almost certainly doomed without its mother.

Sinnott isn't sure how to explain the sudden increase in bear-vehicle accidents.

Only one brown bear had been killed in a vehicle accident in the city since 1991. This year, the four deaths ranged from the Glenn Highway to Eagle River to Girdwood and included both male and female bears.

"Who knows?" he said. "There could be an increase in bears, or it could be that there's an increase in traffic, or it could be that there's more habituated bears that would be more likely to be running back and forth across the road. It may be a combination of all of those."

Perhaps people should slow down or road officials should put up bear crossing signs or take other measures, Deatherage said.

"Clearly we have a problem, but our problem isn't unique," she said. "Roads have posed problems for bears everywhere, throughout Alaska and throughout the country.

"We need to take a good hard look at these incidents and see if we can address the problem like we addressed the garbage problem."

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com .


 
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