Did success on salmon cause Anchorage's bear problem?

As winter creeps down the Chugach Mountains and the grizzly bears start the move toward their dens, wildlife biologists and others have begun to contemplate whether the city's summer of bears was an aberration or the face of what is to come.

Some now wonder if an environmental success story -- the restoration of salmon runs in Anchorage streams -- has set the stage for an unfolding community crisis. They are wondering whether a mandate to maintain salmon runs at maximum sustainable levels will make the growing bear-human problems in the city even worse.

What garbage is to black bears, salmon are to grizzlies. Salmon lure bears into the city. The attendant problems became painfully clear this summer.

Never before had sprawling urbanization collided so visibly with Big Wild Life. Two people were mauled in the Anchorage Bowl, where no previous maulings had taken place. Another was mauled not far from downtown Eagle River. And a huge grizzly boar was struck and killed by an automobile on a Midtown street. Runners and mountain bikers were chased or confronted by grizzlies in Hillside parks.

"Who knows what this means," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley. "I don't have a Ouija board for bears."

But he knows that two big issues are the number of bears and the presence of salmon.

"The fish were late, and there are fewer of them. So the bears are going to move around looking for fish," he said. In the process, the bears ran into people with an alarming regularity.

All of the grizzly problems took place near salmon streams, Farley noted. In that regard, he said, the situation in Anchorage is not much different than the long-running problem at the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula.

Just a few miles back along the Sterling Highway from that stream flows Cooper Creek. It once supported a bountiful run of salmon and lured many grizzly bears. Then Chugach Electric built a hydropower plant upstream at Cooper Lake in 1959. Creek water temperatures plummeted and salmon stopped coming back to spawn. Today, Farley said, it is rare to find a bear along Cooper Creek.

Farley said he has tried repeatedly to explain this grizzly-salmon relationship to Anchorage officials intent on improving and increasing salmon habitat in the Anchorage Bowl, but "the city has not been receptive to anything that I said."

City planning director Tom Nelson disagrees. The city, he said, is very sensitive to wildlife issues, but "the jurisdiction for management of wildlife lies with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game."

It isn't quite that simple. The wildlife division of Fish and Game is responsible for managing bears and the fisheries divisions are responsible for managing fish, but fisheries biologists say they are under a state constitutional mandate to maintain salmon runs at maximum sustainable levels.

For that reason, they have for years protected Campbell Creek king salmon from anglers and poachers. The result has been the restoration of what once was a depleted fishery. The creek now sometimes gets more than 1,000 spawning kings, enough to support a bounty of bears.

And the twists and turns of fisheries management don't end with this one run of kings. Local angling interests and the city have both pushed for expansion of so-called "urban fisheries.'' That has led to the stocking of Ship Creek, Campbell Creek, Eagle River and other waters. Stocked salmon in Ship Creek now support a hugely popular downtown king salmon fishery in May and June.

Fans of that fishery are arguing for removal of a dam that stops the fish from going upstream beyond the Elmendorf Fish Hatchery. Opening Ship Creek to more salmon, Farley said, is sure to lure more bears out of the mountains.

Given the situation, Anchorage Assemblyman Bill Starr from Eagle River says it is clearly time for the city to come up with a policy for managing bears in Anchorage. The city, he said, has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

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