Rick Morgans recent bear special on PBS’s Nature called black bears that come into Anchorage, Alaska, Urban Bears. I see the problem as larger and more complex than that because right next to Anchorage is Chugach State Park and the park is home to brown bears. These bears are much larger than black bears and are much more agressive than black bears. For the last 3 years brown bears have killed humans here. The photo accompanying this article showed 4 brown bears in an Anchorage park. This poses a very different problem and I see Anchorage as a proving ground for managing the Urban Brrown Bear.
Photo by Rick Sinnott, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
A remote camera captures a quartet of bears walking on the Rover’s Run trail in Anchorage’s Bicentennial Park in July 2010. In May, a federal judge in Utah awarded $1.95 million to the family of an 11-year-old boy killed by a black bear in 2007. Meanwhile, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan is still betting the city’s brown bears will behave. But how much is it worth to him? And whose money is he wagering?
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball found the U.S. Forest Service liable for failing to close a campsite and not warning the victim’s family of a bear attack at the same campsite earlier the same day. The judge ruled the agency would not have been at fault if they had posted signs warning of the earlier attack on a gate leading into the area and cordoned off the tent site. But someone dropped the ball. Judge Kimball found no evidence that the family had been warned, verbally or by a posted sign, and concluded the fatal attack was “foreseeable” and that “the whole area could have been closed off by simply closing the gate” blocking a 1.2-mile-long access road to the dispersed camping area.
I wonder what Judge Kimball would think of Rover’s Run. Last summer, when Mayor Sullivan had a similar opportunity to act when a biker was mauled by a brown bear on Rover’s Run, a two-mile-long trail in Far North Bicentennial Park, he refused to close the trail. He did allow his staff to post a few warning signs, however.
A year later, Sullivan is still obstinately refusing to heed the advice of local experts — including his parks department, wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the interagency Anchorage Bear Committee (ABC) — as well as two municipal advisory boards.
The management coordinator for Fish and Game’s Southcentral region, Gino Del Frate, recently met with municipal staff. He reiterated last year’s recommendation: close Rover’s Run from June 15 through October 10, the period when spawning salmon attract a high level of brown bear activity along Campbell Creek. The mayor refused to consider it.
The go-to trail for maulings
Anchorage has hundreds of miles of publicly maintained trails, located mostly in Chugach State Park and several large municipal parks and greenbelts. Of these, Rover’s Run has become the go-to trail for anyone wanting to be mauled by a bear. That dubious distinction used to belong to the Albert Loop Trail, in Chugach State Park near the Eagle River Nature Center, where three hikers were mauled by brown bears during a four-year period in the late 1990s. Park rangers have closed the Albert Loop Trail in late summer and early fall every year since. No one has been attacked or injured on that trail in 13 years.
.In comparison, three people — two bikers and one runner — have been mauled on Rover’s Run in the last three summers. The trail was closed by then-Mayor Mark Begich after the second person was mauled in mid-August 2008 and remained closed until mid-October, when brown bears were less likely to be attracted by salmon spawning in nearby Campbell Creek. Begich also closed Rover’s Run in 2009, from mid-June to mid-October. No bear attacks occurred on the trail during the closures despite continued use, mostly by bikers. However, after Mayor Sullivan refused to close the trail in summer 2010, a third person was mauled on June 15 at the intersection of Rover’s Run and the Gasline Trail. If Rover’s Run users had been mauled in the past three years at the same rate when the trail was closed as when it was open, at least six people would have required emergency medical attention.
Of course, the real world isn’t that simple. Some bikers and others “poach” closed trails, finding them less crowded and getting a buzz from flaunting authority, so risky behavior continues even though a trail is closed. Also, wildlife biologists shot one of the two brown bears that mauled someone on Rover’s Run in 2008, and her cubs were taken to a zoo. So she wasn’t available to attack anyone else. And the most recently injured biker was using the Gasline Trail, which wouldn’t have been closed because it does not parallel the creek for miles like Rover’s Run.