Anchorage's summer of the bear just won't seem to end

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 31, 2008 

Jennifer McLendon awoke to screams. Her baby was crying for help, she thought. It was 6 a.m.

But she quickly realized the sound was not coming from inside her Eagle River home.

It was something crying outside.

So McLendon, who moved to Alaska from Houston two months ago, woke her husband and looked out the window to a sight most lifelong Alaskans haven't seen: a brown bear mauling a moose calf 30 yards away. The bear had a cub in tow.

"I knew it was part of nature," McLendon said. "But the baby was flailing around, struggling."

"I cried."

It was another episode in Anchorage's Big Wild Life during a summer of people-bear encounters, many more than usual with brown bear sows and their cubs, said Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott.

The encounters have the potential to be the most dangerous — mother brown bears are notoriously protective. And, while no one has been injured, the one mauling in the city this year of a 15-year-old cyclist in Far North Bicentennial Park may have been a sow with cubs.

"We are just getting an awful lot of calls," Sinnott said.

Sinnott believes the bear the McLendons saw was the one that charged three people in three different brushes during the past month near Ravenwood Elementary, about a mile away from her home.

Sinnott doesn't know why there are so many sightings of this bear and others, including ones closer to the city. He said bear populations fluctuate, and this might be another bumper crop for brown bear cubs.

The Tuesday morning "nature running wild" special outside the McLendons' condo was on Riverside Drive, which borders the greenbelt with the Eagle River. Beyond the river is Chugach State Park.

McLendon said she recognized the calf, which was about two months old, and its mother, which was standing off in the distance about 50 yards away watching her youngster helplessly. The adult moose was easy to identify because it had an injured leg and limped. The pair had become regular figures in the subdivision over the past several weeks, eating in the same spot where the attack took place.

"It was a weird cry, you could tell something was struggling," McLendon said. "It was crying for a good while."

The husband and wife watched for about a minute and videotaped the episode before the bear dragged the still-alive calf over a steep, brushy bluff.

"We heard crunching and the thing was still yelping for about 2 1/2 minutes," Ryan McLendon said.

They saw the bear fling the moose up in the air several times.

Sinnott went to the kill site Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, he posted signs telling walkers to be cautious and to avoid the area. The bear was behaving just like a bear should, he said.

"If this is all she's doing, I'm not too worried," he said.

By Wednesday, he had something to be worried about.

He decided to retrieve the carcass after learning people were ignoring the signs. Instead of avoiding the bear's storage locker in the woods, people were looking for it and checking out the half-buried calf.

People on the bluff could hear crunching, and growling.

People were getting nervous.

The McLendons were worried about neighborhood kids. It was hard to keep them out of the woods.

When Sinnott and his assistants went in to find the carcass, they shot cracker shells toward the woods to warn the bear they coming. But the bear was either defiant, or maybe sleeping.

Whatever. It charged the three biologists. It huffed as it broke through the brush and rushed toward them, said Fish and Game's Jessy Coltrane.

Sinnott fired more cracker shells. Coltrane fired a .12-gauge slug into the ground.

The bear -- a brown blur through the thick woods -- retreated.

"The goal was not to kill it," Sinnott said.

Sinnott, Coltrane and biologist Sean Farley removed what was left of the calf carcass.

"It is probably one of the most dangerous things we do," Coltrane said. "They defend their food caches."

When the sow comes back, all it will find is an empty bed where its kill used to be and the unpleasant smell of many humans. Sinnott expects it will retreat back into the woods, closer to the river, and not be a danger anymore.

Nevertheless, Sinnott figures he'll be back in the neighborhood before the summer is over. The recently constructed homes were built adjacent to a prime bear corridor -- the Eagle River.

"They've literally built houses in the last five years right on the bluff, above the river where the bears probably used to walk since time immemorial."

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service