Daily News Bear Population story
More bears live on Campbell Creek than biologists thought
By CRAIG MEDRED
Published: April 29th, 2008 01:32 AM
Last Modified: April 29th, 2008 01:07 PM
Unbeknown to most of the nearly 300,000 residents of Alaska's largest city, one of the bear-busier streams in Southcentral appears to flow smack through their midst.
Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game always knew Campbell Creek was popular with a few bears -- especially grizzly bears.
But even they were surprised to find out just how many of the big, brown omnivores hang out along the stream that originates from several valleys in the front range of the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, comes together in a popular suburban park and then courses through industrial, residential and business areas before reaching Turnagain Arm just past the posh homes that cluster around a man-made impoundment known as Campbell Lake.
Warm summer days bring mobs of young children to play around the creek near the Bureau of Land Management's Campbell Creek Science Center just off Elmore Road. They are seldom far from bears, said Sean Farley, a bear research biologist with Fish and Game.
"The take-home message is that we always knew there were brown bears there," he said, "but we didn't know there were so many resident bears."
Groundbreaking research conducted by Farley over the past three summers has documented at least three dozen bears focused in or near the stream but roaming large ranges that in some cases stretch all the way to the Little Susitna River west of Wasilla.
That distance is not as great as it might seem to local residents who've made the looping 75-mile drive around Knik Arm to Wasilla and then west to the popular salmon-fishing stream. It's only about 15 miles north of the city as the raven flies -- or the bear swims.
"Cook Inlet waters are not a barrier to bears,'' the study notes. "Both black and brown bears have been observed successfully crossing Turnagain and Knik arms. The home range of one male in this study extended from the headwaters of Peters Creek (near Eagle River) to the Little Susitna River.''
TRACKING THEIR MOVEMENT
Of 11 bears fitted with radio collars during the study, that boar had the largest range. It wandered an area about eight times larger than that of the average sow with cubs. The latter tended to focus their time in and around salmon streams in sight of Anchorage.
These bears were occasionally seen by hikers or mountain bikers, but not nearly as often as Farley's data suggests they should be. He has documented bears roaming all of the popular recreational trails in Far North Bicentennial Park and the Campbell Tract.
An endangered or threatened species in the Lower 48 states, grizzly bears might be thought of as just the neighbors next door in Anchorage.
"Brown bears in the study denned at elevations ranging from 1,500 to 4,200 feet above sea level, and several dens were visible from downtown Anchorage,'' Farley wrote.
The bears are now emerging from their dens. They drop out of the snowy mountains toward the city in search of food: Carcasses of winter-killed moose, the first greens of spring, moose calves, garbage if residents aren't careful with it.
But mostly the bears come for the salmon that start returning in early June and keep coming back all summer long.
Scientists used hair traps along local salmon streams to snag the fur of passing bears. The hairs were then genetically fingerprinted to identify individual animals. That led to the conclusion that there were at least 36 bears that traveled along the streams, but "undoubtedly the true population of bears using the study area is larger than 36 individuals,'' Farley wrote.
Four of the 11 bears Farley radio-collared for the study, for instance, never had any of their fur caught in a hair trap. Biologists are leery of even taking a guess at exactly how many grizzly bears inhabit the Municipality of Anchorage. But they agree that is it far more than the 50 once thought to make up the entire population in the area bounded by Turnagain Arm, Knik Arm, and a line across the mountains from Portage to the Knik Glacier. That is an area three or four times larger than was studied by Farley. He focused on the front range of the Chugach, the Anchorage Bowl, Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
The biggest concentration of bear activity was along salmon streams, the study found.
Besides Campbell Creek in the Bowl, other popular bear streams were Ship Creek between the city and Fort Richardson and Sixmile Creek on the air base. Current bear activity along upper Ship Creek led Farley and fellow investigators Herman Griese, Rick Sinnott and Jessy Coltrane to wonder about plans to remove a dam that blocks the upstream migration of the fish to help enhance salmon runs, as has been done with Campbell Creek.
"Redistributing and/or increasing the presence of salmon ... will re-distribute the presence and/or increase the number of brown bears using those same areas,'' they wrote. "For example, enhancing adult salmon passage on Ship Creek has the potential to concentrate bears near golf courses, family housing and several picnic areas on the military lands. The risk to human safety needs to be evaluated and a strategy developed to minimize the risk of bear-human interactions.''
As it is, the rare meetings of bears and people around the fringes of the city are fraught with risks for both. Anchorage nurse Sarah Wallner, 32, was the latest to be mauled by a bear when she was attacked while hiking near a salmon spawning area in upper Eagle River last October.
She was not seriously injured, but a brown bear killed well-known runners Marcie Trent and Larry Waldron in an attack in the McHugh Creek drainage on the city's southern edge in 1995. There have been a number of other violent encounters between bears and people since, a few ending in injuries to the humans, many ending in the death of bears.
Three or four grizzlies and more than a dozen black bears are shot here each summer by wildlife officials or citizens defending themselves.
Statistically, people are more of a threat to the bears than the bears are to people. And the animals seem to understand.
"They're very secretive,'' Farley said. "They're very good at hiding from us. They're very good at avoiding people.''
Though regular travelers on the same Hillside trails used by hikers, runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders, the bears will jump off and make themselves invisible if they smell or hear someone coming, Farley said. That is why biologists are always telling people one of the best ways to avoid problems with bears is to make noise when traveling in bear country. And most of the Hillside will soon be bear country.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.
So the obvious reason they cannot find the money to study the Kenai population is the money was spent in Anchorage on a population that will not be hunted...
And the answer is ALWAYS the same when they study a bear population... "We had no idea there were so many bears in such a small area!"
Note they are now estimating more than the total estimated population in one-quarter of the area...