Skagway residents are mourning the loss of a "spirit bear" that enthralled them since it was a cub.
The white or light-colored black bears are also known as "glacier bears" and historically are of special importance to the Tlingit people of the area as well as other residents and visitors. In nearby Haines, school sports teams are named after glacier bears.
The local resident, who shot the bear despite a state regulation intended to protect it, not only won't be prosecuted but is soon to go home with the pelt.
Now, questions are being asked about who was to blame and whether the state did enough to protect a beloved bear.
"People here are extremely upset that the bear was shot and that they're returning the hide to this gentleman," said Jan Wrentmore, owner of Skagway's Red Onion Saloon.
The glacier bear was first spotted three years ago as a cub, tagging along behind a regular-colored black bear mother and with a standard-issue black bear sibling.
As it grew up, Wrentmore said, it became a fixture in the town of fewer than 1,000 residents.
"Children went on field trips to see this bear," she said. "It was not a garbage bear. It had just grown up here."
On June 9, police say, Skagway resident Thor Henricksen may have shot the bear.
Certainly Henricksen shot a bear, but was it the spirit bear?
The answer hinges on the coloring of the bear, and relevant state officials say they can't be sure the bear Henricksen took near Skagway's Dyea Road on that day was the "white" bear the regulations intended to protect.
Troopers seized a bear carcass from Henricksen and had it reviewed by Department of Fish and Game biologists. They determined that the bear was various colors, but concluded it was not a fully "white" bear.
"It was a multi-colored pelt," said Fish and Game's Ryan Scott.
"There was some black in it, some white color, some blond-cinnamon and some gray," he said.
The regulations protecting the "spirit" bear, passed by the Board of Game last year specifically to protect the Skagway bear at the request of the city of Skagway and local residents, refers only to a "white" bear.
"We could not definitely say this is or is not the same bear," Scott said.
That, said Lt. Todd Sharp of the Alaska State Troopers, means Henricksen can't be prosecuted and may have done nothing wrong.
"We weren't able to determine that it was a white-colored bear as the regulation states," Sharp said.
The bear is being held in storage and will be returned to Henricksen, he said.
Wrentmore has asked that Skagway residents be able to view the bear to see if they think it is the same bear. The carcass is now in a freezer in Juneau, but Sharp turned down a request from the Empire to view the bear.
"It doesn't belong to the state. It belongs to the person that took the bear," he said. "It has been determined that it was lawfully taken."
Henricksen took the bear in an area open to bear hunting, during an open bear hunting season, and the hunter possessed the necessary license to hunt and harvest bears, Sharp said.
Wrentmore thinks Henricksen took the Skagway glacier bear that the city had tried to protect, even though it was not completely white.
"It was never pure white. It was always creamy, with white ears," she said.
Scott agrees that the bear Henricksen took was likely the bear the city had tried to protect.
"I haven't heard anything about it being seen recently, it is potentially the same bear," he said. "Most likely, it is the bear."
Henricksen, an equipment operator for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities in Skagway, was unavailable for comment.
A woman answering the phone at Henricksen's residence said he was unlikely to be willing to talk about the incident.
"I'm sure he's going to have no comment. It's been nothing but a nightmare," she said.
The regulations protecting the bear were put in place by the Board of Game as an emergency measure in August of 2007, and made permanent in November of that year for Unit 1D. They were modeled after a similar regulation in Juneau's Unit 1C, where taking white black bears was already banned.
Such bears are sometimes called white-phase black bears, and Wrentmore said that broader designation was what the Skagway citizens had originally sought. Had the regulation barred taking "white-phase" black bears, it might have protected the Skagway spirit bear, she said.
Scott said Fish and Game is trying to determine if something went wrong with its regulatory process.
"The regulation was intended for an individual bear," he said. "The bear we saw just did not meet the wording of the regulation," he said.
That doesn't mean it wasn't the same bear, however.
Bears change color over time, and this one wasn't white," Scott said.
"We are certainly discussing that internally with the troopers. It's in the forefront of our thoughts right now, what could be done differently," he said.
Wrentmore said something should have been done differently.
"There's lots of heartache here in town right now," she said.
* Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.