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Big City Bears
Radio collars reveal urban bruins' secrets

Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / January 8, 2006


Bear encounter?

The young male grizzly bear weighed maybe 500 pounds. Over the summer, he scarfed down salmon and ate moose. He spent a few breathless nights chasing bliss with a brunette sow deep in the mountains.

A story from deep in the Alaska wilderness? Not quite.

Almost entirely unseen, Bear 208 roamed the streets and parks of Alaska's largest city over much of last summer and early fall, from East Anchorage across the Hillside to Turnagain Arm. He crossed Tudor Road into densely populated neighborhoods at least once, the movement tracked by a global positioning system device on a collar around his neck. But except for snacking on a few domestic sheep in a South Anchorage back yard and raiding a bit of dog food, the bear, 5 or 6 years old, spurned human edibles in favor of silver and king salmon in local streams.

And he had friends.

A military-funded tracking study of Anchorage grizzly bears found that these large, intelligent omnivores don't just make quick trips to the city's edge and then retreat to some remote wilderness up in the Chugach Mountains.

They spend the summer close to people, largely out of sight in parks and on military land. Some of them seem as adept at urban life as any traffic-savvy moose from the neighborhood.

"It's kind of startling to realize these brown bears are in our midst," said state research biologist Sean Farley, who oversaw the research.

"There is not another city like this in the world that has wild brown bears in this close proximity to people like we have here," he said. "To have bears come in so close to people and not cause problems is really remarkable."

How many bears live in and around Anchorage?

Biologists aren't really sure. About 60 brown, or grizzly, bears are thought to live between the Knik River and Turnagain Arm, with a dozen more foraging in or near town. At least 250 black bears are thought to overlap the area, with a third foraging in or near town.

Those are just estimates, though, based on studies in the Susitna Valley that were extrapolated to the municipality. It's hard to actually count bears.

But there's no question, scientists say, that Anchorage's creek bottoms, mountain slopes and parklands offer excellent habitat for both species of bears. Grizzlies are routinely spotted in Chugach State Park on the city's outskirts, and occasionally glimpsed in the city.

The tracking study provides new information about where a group of tagged grizzlies went, and how they behaved.

"They're not visitors, they're not tourists," said Rick Sinnott, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "They inhabit the (Anchorage) Bowl just like the rest of us."

Nine bears captured last May and fitted with special collars that can log locations every 90 minutes often toured for weeks at a time within shouting distance of homes or five-lane boulevards.

"We already knew there were bears there -- that's not a surprise," said assistant area biologist Jessy Coltrane, who helped Farley with the study. "We thought they were using the creek and moving off, but they're using the creek and staying. They're living in Far North Bicentennial Park."

The $100,000 study, funded by Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson, showed that sow bears with cubs tend to stay in well-defined home ranges, while males prowl farther, sometimes walking from one side of the mountains to the other in a few hours.

Depending on the season, the animals appeared to be munching on berries, moose calves or fish. They were most active at night, adjusting to the human world by taking daytime snoozes in jungled enclaves. People rarely, if ever, reported seeing the study bears.

"By and large, they just want to hit the fish and get fat, and get out of town," Farley said.

Using a helicopter and an airplane between May 24 and May 26, Farley and a team of biologists darted nine bears with tranquilizer, then fitted each bear with a sophisticated collar. At predetermined intervals, Farley could intercept the signal with a receiver and download the data.

The scientists also weighed the animals when they could, removed a premolar tooth to get an age estimate, snipped hair for genetic studies and sampled blood to analyze diet. Though only nine bears were collared, the biologists saw about 30 during the two days, including a dozen cubs.

Among the bears was No. 203, a big brown grizzly that prowled the Eagle River and Ship Creek areas. Farley estimated its size at 1,000 pounds.

"After about 10 days, he tore the collar off," Farley said. "I've never seen a bear do what he did to a collar."

Three other Eagle River area bears -- 205, 201 and 206 -- were all females with cubs that roamed the slopes near subdivisions.

"They clearly were behaving themselves," Farley said. "We never got any calls, where someone says, 'I've got a female bear in my back yard with three cubs, and I'm scared to death.' "

Two bears remained on the military bases, wandering through housing and visiting Ship Creek salmon runs. Another female, 204, spent most of the summer with her cubs along the North Fork of Campbell Creek, only a half mile from Tudor Road.

The study's royal couple may have been male 208 and female 207. The scientists found the two animals mating on the back side of Williwaw Peak in Chugach State Park.

Both were darted, examined and collared.

The bears soon parted but followed parallel destinies. Female 207 spent the summer working the Campbell Creek salmon runs in Bicentennial Park, apparently avoiding people. Male 208 worked the same runs, but wandered much, much farther.

Reported by residents only a few times, the male bear would amble from Indian or Bird valleys to the woods just south of Tudor in a half day. He was suspected of killing sheep in someone's back yard and taking down a Powerline Pass moose during the controversial Hillside hunt (the kill was initially blamed on a hunter). But mostly, Bear 208 stayed away from scrutiny. He liked Bicentennial Park. He loved salmon.

At 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 5, the bear was strolling near E. 41st Avenue in a neighborhood west of Boniface Parkway.

"We never got a call," Coltrane said.

On other days, the bear was within yards of Tudor Road in the woods, or lurking in the trees along the Tour of Anchorage Trail. He likely saw, smelled or heard people every day yet stayed away from them. With only about 65 percent of the animal's locations recorded by the collar, the bear almost certainly wandered north of Tudor more than once, Farley said.

"He was checking it out. He was just kind of exploring."

The study, which continues next summer, suggests that Anchorage residents should assume brown bears live near city salmon streams and behave accordingly. Manage garbage properly. Don't sneak through the brush. Use common sense and make noise when hiking.

"The take-home message is there are bears in the woods," Coltrane said. "If you live in an area that's adjacent to natural habitat, then you live in bear country."

The study also showed the importance of salmon to brown bears inside the city. Increase the number of fish by removing dams or opening culverts on urban streams -- projects proposed for Ship and Chester creeks -- and the number of bears will increase too.

"If you enhance it, the bears will come," Farley said. "That doesn't mean that you don't enhance it. ... But you have to do it with open eyes, because if you have urban fisheries, you're going to have brown bears."

By late fall, most of the collars had stopped working. Farley had tracked three or four bears to den sites in the Chugach Mountains. He hopes to catch up with them next spring.

"That joke about Anchorage being good because it's close to Alaska, well it's not really true if you're talking about brown bears," he said. "They're already here.

"It's Alaska. It's bear country. People should not be afraid. Just be aware of it."

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