Copper River Record, September 20, 2018
By Robin Mayo
In my neighborhood, this summer will go down as “The Summer of the Bear,” or perhaps “The Summer of the Bears.” We were kept on our toes all season by random but obviously related episodes of vandalism in the several-mile wide area around mile 90 Richardson Highway. The description of the perpetrator varied somewhat in size, color, and species, but the pattern was similar. A bear that was bold but wary, that could be scared away but returned soon. It showed up on decks and porches, snagged random tidbits and knocked over garbage cans. Pretty routine stuff.
Other areas of the Copper Basin experienced similar situations. In Gakona, a surge in problem bears is attributed by some residents to better fencing at the landfill. Out the Edgerton, bears raided chicken coops and gave people the scare of their lives during late-night outhouse visits.
We knew we had a problem on our hands when it started getting into sheds, popping off doors or even tearing out walls. And it was rewarded for this new trick with dog food and other goodies. Next came freezers, the ultimate treat for a lazy omnivore on a hot day. A bear tore into an army trailer trying to get a squirrel, and was chased off three times before it stayed away. Several people took shots and there were some tense confrontations, but nothing serious. One of the most disquieting things was a sense that it we were being watched. A neighbor left for the Post Office, returning an hour later in the middle of the afternoon to toppled garbage cans.
At this point you are probably shaking your head, and listing all the easily avoided mistakes that created this problem. Several years ago WISE had a Americorps volunteer who had worked at Glacier National Park in Montana. Glacier has a lot of grizzlies and humans in a relatively constricted area, and a history of negative bear-human interactions. Jamie was horrified at most Alaskans’ generally casual attitude towards bear safety: we store garbage outdoors, eschew bear-proof containers when camping, and practice sloppy camp hygiene. I reassured her that our bears generally prefer to avoid civilization, and there are plenty of places to get away from humans and do the wild thing. Except when they don’t.
In retrospect, if everyone in the neighborhood had followed the basic guidelines for bear-country, we would never have had a problem. But Alaskans are almost universally lax on these things. No one event or household created this nuisance bear, but we all contributed. And as you can imagine, it did not end well. We say it so often it is almost a cliché—In the end, it is the bear who pays the ultimate price.
Over Labor Day weekend, he ripped the door off of a shed and made off with two 50-pound bags of dog food. A week later at the same house, two sheep hindquarters hung high under a porch roof disappeared. As anyone who has ever done the hard work of hunting, harvesting, and hauling out a Dall sheep in anticipation of the delicious meat can imagine, this was the final insult. For Mr. Bear, it was his last supper.
The next night, when the bear came back looking for more goodies, he was shot in the spine. It was a mature boar grizzly, rolling in fat from his easy summer. Now the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief, but we shall soon find out if this was the single perpetrator, or if other bears are still roaming the area looking for trouble.
Whose fault is all this? No one in particular, but all of us had a part to play. At the first sign of trouble we should have moved our garbage cans, dog food, and freezers to more secure locations. Some of us did, but the trouble is that it takes everyone cleaning up their act to truly clean up the neighborhood. As is often the case with danger, I didn’t learn until afterwards how close it was. Exploring the bear’s trails, we discovered a large cache of dog food cans stolen from trash cans, and resting places where he could watch from the thick brush. This was less than 30 yards from a trail I walk nearly every day.
This tragic and gory tale does have a warm fuzzy ending. Since I was the one who alerted the neighbor to the bear in his yard, I ended up with the beautiful hide. It is in the freezer, awaiting a trip to the tannery and a final home on the back of my sofa. But I would have much rather left him roaming the wild.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.