Alaska Governor Steps in to Commute Bear Family’s “Death Sentence”

   04.24.15

Due to public demand and a request from Governor Bill Walker, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (DFG) announced that it will not euthanize a family of five bears near Anchorage. The department intially intended to capture and destroy the black bears—a sow and her four yearling cubs—after the animals made repeated visits to Anchorage to rummage through unsecured trash.

Earlier this month, the animals were spotted in the downtown neighborhood of Government Hill, where they were surrounded by curious bystanders taking photos on their phones. Feeling threatened, the cubs climbed a tree while their mother started behaving aggressively. Officials said it was a dangerous situation and could have easily ended in injuries.

“Onlookers and photographers were observed pushing boundaries on several occasions, sometimes creeping close enough to alarm the sow and prompt her to huff and pop her jaws,” stated a press release from DFG.

“People weren’t respecting the bears’ space,” added wildlife biologist Dave Saalfeld. “They were getting too close and forcing the issue.”

It was not the only time that bystanders have put themselves in danger with this specific group of bears, which continued to return to the neighborhood due to unsecured trash. The department had worked with Government Hill’s Community Council and Anchorage’s Solid Waste Services to try and educate residents on proper trash disposal, but problems continued.

“This was totally preventable,” Saalfeld said. “Those bears were rewarded repeatedly with garbage and they weren’t going to stop coming back.”

As the bears became more familiarized with people, they became bolder. Add crowds of bystanders into the mix, and it was an explosive situation. Since relocating the bears was both problematic and expensive, DFG made the decision last week to euthanize the animals. The announcement was quickly met by criticism from those who felt that the bears were being punished for what was ultimately a human issue. Among them was Governor Walker.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of criticism about the governor getting involved in this,” Walker told the Alaska Dispatch. “But I’m a person too. I have a soft spot for individuals in circumstances not of their own making.”

The governor requested that the department seek alternatives in dealing with the bears, and DFG eventually reconsidered. The department announced recently that it will capture and relocate the bear family to Portage Valley, which lies 60 miles away from Anchorage. Although bears commonly return to their old territories, officials are hoping that that the rugged terrain on the way to Anchorage will prevent the bears from coming back.

“We would like the public to know that the department views this less as an effort to give the bears another chance than it is to give the Anchorage residents another opportunity to shore up their trash and generally become bear aware to prevent these situations in the future,” said Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.

Nor does the department plan on relocating bears regularly. The real problem lies in the lack of proper trash disposal in Anchorage neighborhoods. City officials are considering a new program to increase the number of bear-resistant containers in the city.

“As we’ve previously stated, relocation is a short-term solution to what the department views as a long-term bear problem in Anchorage,” Cotton said.

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