Wolf Song of Alaska News

Alaskan Grizzlies Prowl Close to Home in Bird and Indian

Along Turnagain Arm, residents see their animals devoured and freezers raided

Megan Holland / Anchorage Daily News / August 17, 2006

When longtime Indian resident Doug Drum walked out his back door one morning this summer and was charged by a brown bear that had blood dripping from its face, he thought of Sweetpea, his beloved pygmy goat.

As he escaped the bear, he knew that 50-pound Sweetpea had not.

Brown bears have killed and eaten Sweetpea, Nancy and Peaches -- all pygmy goats -- as well as Patty, a reindeer, and two unnamed miniature sheep in the past several weeks in Drum's five-acre pet pen.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Drum, who has lived at his Indian home off the Seward Highway for 35 years. "There are more bears this year than I have ever, ever seen."

And the bears he and his neighbors are seeing are not the usual black bears but the larger, more aggressive brown bears -- which can be up to 9 feet tall and weigh up to 1,400 pounds. Brown bears have prowled Drum's property at all hours for the past several weeks. Mothers with cubs. Adult males. He's counted five at once in his backyard.

For the first time in memory for residents, some of whom have been on the land for decades, brown bears are coming into the yards and porches of homes in Bird and Indian, just off the Seward Highway 25 miles south of downtown Anchorage. The bears have devoured livestock, raided backyard freezers for ice cream and led families to walk the winding dirt roads in packs.

Some residents accept it as the price for living on the edge of the half-million-acre Chugach State Park. Others are frustrated and frightened. All are asking why the brown bears that haven't been here for decades are suddenly showing up.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates 55 to 65 brown bears live in the park and around the Anchorage Bowl. A half-dozen have taken to roaming among anglers to steal fish at Bird Creek, which runs through Bird. State biologists last week set up traps to catch one young brown bear that has flattened at least two tents in the nearby campground, one of which had a family in it at the time. No one was injured.

Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott has identified in the Bird and Indian areas two female brown bears, each with two cubs. Residents say they have seen more.

Some of the 300 or so residents of Bird and Indian say they like seeing the bears. Sharon Whitlock, for instance, said she named the three that most frequent her yard Cinnabar, Brown Sugar and Cocoa. "I don't know why they can't just close the creek to fishermen and close down the campground," she said. "The bears were here before us."

Lisa Taylor said she suspects that the bears learned to lift the tops off fishermen's coolers near the creek before they figured out how to open her 4-foot-tall freezer, where they gorged on ice cream, berries and fish. She's not too paranoid though, she said, because the bears seem to be acting like bears.

Dorn Van Dommelen, who has had the spare tire ripped off his car and his dog charged by a bear, agreed and said, "Most of our neighbors have taken a nonconfrontational view, because the bears have a right to be here."

Others, like Drum, say it is overwhelming.

Drum, who owns Indian Valley Meats, a small meat- and fish-processing company, said he's tired of losing his pets to the bruins. When he lost Sweetpea, he said, his wife "just about lost it. She kept asking me why I didn't take her in, why I didn't protect her."

The breaking point, he said, came when the bears killed Patty, a reindeer he kept in his 5-acre pet pen. On Tuesday, he walked up to the animal's carcass in the paddock surrounded by hills of dense woods. Only a hoof and some hair remained. "She was such a good protector to all the other animals," he said. "You could tell he worked her real good. Had her trapped in a corner. Then laid right into her."

"She never tangled with a brown bear," he said, shaking his head.

The brown bears have even made it as far as the Seward Highway, where the Peterson family lives on 3 acres and runs an auto- repair shop. Behind the shop, where you can still hear the noise of vehicles on the highway, the Petersons' sheep, Lucky and Sunny, were killed and eaten by a brown bear after it ripped through a fence.

"The bear was just eating the sheep's face, kind of like they go for just the cheeks of salmon," Bill Peterson said of what he saw when coming across the kill and chasing the bear away.

Now the Petersons keep their sheep and miniature horses locked up in a barn. "We've been fighting to keep this property safe," Peterson said. "It's like a war zone."

Unlike problem city black bears that have been lured into residential neighborhoods mostly by garbage, something else is bringing the brown bears to Bird and Indian, residents say. Neighbors' theories include the abundance of salmon in Bird Creek, recent mild winters that have increased the number of bears and stricter hunting regulations in the area that have allowed bears to thrive.

Sinnott said that he doesn't think the number of bears has increased but that the residents of Bird and Indian are dealing with the coincidence of two healthy females with cubs at the same time. But he also said he hadn't known about all the problems occurring in the neighborhoods.

Residents say they usually don't call Fish and Game when the bears show up. Most said they deal with the bears on their own.

Rumors abound that vigilantes have taken matters into their own hands, shooting the bears and dumping their bodies either into Cook Inlet or in the mountains. But none of those interviewed this week would talk specifics or name names.

Joan Daniels, who lives in one of the eclectically built log cabins at the end of a dirt road in Bird, said she now carries a shotgun every time she goes to use the outhouse. She is constantly scanning, she said.

"It's like we are in a state of siege," she said.

She's lived on her property for 35 years and has seen an occasional brown bear, but they usually move on and are very wary of humans, she said. These bears, though, have jumped on her porch and put their noses against her windows.

"A lot of people think it's the fishing, but there's something else going on," she said.

Daily News reporter Megan Holland can be reached at mrholland@adn.com.

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