As the number of bears found shot to death and left to rot near Bird Creek grows, some state officials and local residents are wondering whether a vigilante has decided to solve bear problems plaguing residents of a tiny strip of development along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage.
"I've heard some stories,'' said Joan Daniels of Bird. "If someone's shooting bears, I totally sympathize with them.''
Area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the summer started with two bears being found dead and dumped off Konickson Road, off the Seward Highway. Just this weekend, the carcass of a shot-dead black bear was discovered on a beach near Bird Point.
"These are ones that were found,'' he added. "There were probably others that were shot, and we didn't hear about it.''
No one likes to see bears killed, Daniels said, but she could see why someone might have decided they'd had enough and started shooting.
"I've had seven grizzlies at my place just in the last two weeks,'' she said. "This place is like infested. My windows are covered in bear slobber. They even took items off my deck this spring and buried them -- non-food items, like big crocks.
"The last two years have been a nightmare. They were sleeping beside my car, right beside my car, this year.''
BEARS DRAWN TO SILVERS
Daniels lives near salmon-filled Bird Creek, about 25 miles from Anchorage. Sinnott said there has been an obvious increase in the number of grizzly bears in that area. There are some indications the increase dates back to the early 1990s, when the state started stocking the creek with silver salmon to benefit anglers.
Problems reached a peak last year when bears in the sister communities of Bird and Indian began snatching pets and livestock from people's yards and chasing anglers along Bird Creek to get them to drop their fish or coolers.
A longtime Bird resident, Daniels can remember when it was rare to see a bear in her yard. Now, she said, it's all too common. She has put an electric fence around her kitchen to keep the animals away from that part of the house, and has thought about fencing her entire property.
She fears she doesn't have much choice unless bear numbers go down. Some now wonder whether there might be some sort of vigilante effort under way in the municipality to do just that.
When you combine the three dead bears in the Bird area with another found on a beach near Kincaid Park in Anchorage and one reported shot and left in Girdwood last week, Sinnott is looking at more unreported bear kills in the city than he can remember in any summer going back at least a decade.
"I've never had this many reports of bears shot and dumped,'' Sinnott said. "It's the first time in 13 or 14 years. It seems to be awfully high to me.''
Shooting bears and leaving them to rot is illegal. Alaskans can legally shoot bears in defense of life of property, but they are required to report the shootings and salvage the hides and skulls of the dead animals. Skinning a bear and trimming out the skull is no easy task, however; some people might be reluctant to report a shooting because of that requirement or for fear of getting in trouble, wildlife biologists said.
DEATH RATE FOLLOWS TREND
Most of the recent shootings are under investigation, but there is little evidence to go on. And Sinnott said he can understand why -- given Anchorage's large and healthy bear population -- bear shootings might not be a priority for wildlife troopers.
Even counting the spike in illegal kills, overall bear deaths in the city do not appear to be out of line with past years. To date, 10 black bears and three grizzly bears have been shot in the area, and another four black bears have been hit and killed by motor vehicles for a total of 17 dead bears. That compares to 16 dead bears last year -- 15 black, one grizzly -- and 21 dead bears the year before -- 17 black, four grizzly.
In part, according to biologists, the seemingly high death rates reflect the fact there are a lot of bears in and around Anchorage. An estimated 250 black bears and 60 grizzly bears inhabit the area between the Knik River and Portage. Some of the black bears have found the living especially good in Anchorage.
"Of five adult, female black bears with radio collars that were monitored in the Anchorage Bowl in 1996,'' a Fish and Game report noted, "three had triplet (cubs), one had twins, and the remaining female chased away her four, two-year-old cubs and bred again.''
Alaska residents have always been split between those who love bears and those who hate them. Sinnott said he hasn't noticed any obvious shifts in those attitudes that might account for more unreported shootings this year.
"The only place I've encountered a little more attitude than in the past is with a few of the fishermen on Bird Creek,'' Sinnott said.
Some of them seem to think that because the state stocked the stream with silver salmon, the fish should all belong to people -- not bears. And if bears wanting some of the salmon start causing problems for people, those bears should be terminated.
"There's a little attitude there,'' Sinnott said, "but I haven't had any calls from people saying, 'I'm going to shoot them on sight.' I haven't talked to anyone who has said, 'I'm going to shoot these bears.' ''
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.