Rambunctious coyotes growing increasingly bold at the Hilltop Ski Area, including one that snatched a pair of ski goggles from a fallen boy, have prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to go after them this week with rubber slugs and cracker shells.
At least one coyote and as many as four may be running the slopes of the popular Hillside ski destination, chewing ropes and hoses and showing no fear of people, even when in close proximity or, in one case, after being chased by a snowmachine, employees said.
The animals have not injured anyone, nor have they appeared aggressive. But their brazenness is cause for concern and needs to be checked, Anchorage-area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott said.
"We've got to catch them quick and teach them what they're learning about people being approachable is a bad thing," said Sinnott, who was on the slopes Wednesday looking for the critters. "Otherwise, I'd be afraid that the coyote will escalate things at some point and actually start trying to bite somebody."
Coyotes get to be about 30 pounds and are opportunistic feeders, according to Fish and Game. They are fairly common across Anchorage but generally shy away from people. This case is different.
After sightings that began about a week and a half ago, ski patrol director Jessie Oliver, a three-year veteran at the area, saw a coyote Monday chewing on some fencing as a roughly 12-year-old boy fell on his way down, dropping his ski goggles.
"The coyote walked within 2 feet of him and he turned around and saw it and was like, 'Oh no,' " Oliver said. The boy started crawling away and, while his back was turned, the coyote crept up from behind, snatched his goggles and skirted off. Oliver, who was maybe 100 feet away when the drama unfolded, decided to pursue the thief into the Spencer Loop cross-country trail.
"It kept setting them down, so I would go to go pick them up, and then it would rush back and grab them and take them farther," she said. "It seemed to be more playing around."
The coyote, dubbed "Friendly" by employees, finally took off into the woods, goggles still in his jaws, she said. The encounter prompted manager Steve Remme to call Fish and Game to report the increasingly bold behavior.
"This is the first time this has ever happened," Remme said. "We've seen coyotes over the years, and sometimes our groomers, primarily, will see them at night and they'll be walking up and down the lift line because sometimes kids will drop candy bars and stuff off the lift. ... Generally, as soon as the skiers hit the slopes, they're gone."
For the second day, Sinnott rode the lifts and patrolled the slopes Wednesday afternoon armed with a pump-action shotgun with rubber slugs and cracker shells. Earlier, he'd heard a coyote's yapping in the woods across Spencer Loop, but the animal slipped away before he had a clear shot.
In the approaching dusk, the hum of snowmaking machines launching fresh powder onto the slopes drowned out the sound of small groups of teenagers gliding past on snowboards, apparently oblivious to the possibility of nearby coyotes.
But the only sign of the animals were a few golf-ball sized coyote tracks pressed into the snow and bits of chewed up fencing rope. Sinnott said he hopes to scare the coyotes off quickly, before problems escalate.
"Otherwise we might have to trap them or actually shoot them if they start pushing a little bit harder," he said.
He plans to go out on patrol a few more times but otherwise will rely on ski officials calling and reporting when they are sighted.
Ski patroller Christina Waters said animals appearing on the slopes are not an unusual occurrence, but most often the encounters involve moose that are easily shooed away or the occasional skittish lynx, she said.
"We would love to have it here; it's just a hazard to the kids and it keeps chewing on our rope line," she said. "That stuff's expensive."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.