Handling bears and other wildlife: What you need to know

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Alaskan summers allow for increased outdoor activity, and that goes for both people and wildlife. In the last month, there have been a string of several bear attacks throughout Alaska, some resulting in fatalities.

On June 18, Patrick Cooper, 16, was chased and killed by a black bear while running a mountain race in Bird Ridge. Erin Johnson, a biologist, and her colleague Ellen Trainor were also attacked by a black bear the next day while doing work in Interior Alaska. Trainor sustained injuries, but Johnson died on scene.

Later that week on June 24, two cyclists encountered a brown bear and her cub in Eagle River, and a man gathering firewood with his dog also came across a sow and her cub near the Hope highway.

Despite the quick succession of these attacks, the ones ending in fatalities by black bears are particularly out of the ordinary, according to Ken Marsh, wildlife information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The incident in Bird Ridge is one example of what is considered a non-defensive attack, he says.

“That’s where a bear actually targeted a human being. Of course, that’s a very tragic and troubling type of attack. It’s very rare,” Marsh said.

On the other hand, defensive behavior is typically shown when a sow sees the human as a potential threat to her cubs.

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“A defensive attack is a fairly classic situation where, as an example, a person gets between a brown bear sow and her young cubs. She’s concerned about her cubs,” Marsh said. “What she does is she crashes out of the brush, knocks you down, might rough you up a little bit and she grabs the cubs when she sees that you’re down and neutralized.”

Although these recent attacks have occurred outside of majorly populated areas such as Anchorage, it is still likely to come across wildlife even within city limits.

UAA has seen a number of moose and bear encounters over the years, and the University Police Department will send out alerts accordingly to warn students and faculty. Lieutenant Michael Beckner of the UPD says that part of their procedure is to keep an eye on the animal, ensuring that passersby are aware of its presence.

“We’ll sit there and activate our lights so people can see us and know that there’s a moose there,” Beckner said. “Once it goes off into the woods and away from the public area, then we go our way, but if it’s anywhere it can hurt anybody, we’re going to be in the area.”

It isn’t often that a moose or bear on campus becomes aggressive towards a human, Beckner said. It has been a couple of years since the last time UPD has had to put down an animal, but as long as people exercise caution, conflict is not an issue.

Paul Babbitt Jr., an Anchorage local, grew up in western North Carolina, and black bears and mountain lions are not new to him. He was raised to be wary of his surroundings, but the wildlife between Alaska and the wildlife back home have their differences.

“Wildlife in Alaska is something much different,” Babbitt said. “We didn’t have moose, caribou or wolves out there. We never had to worry about running into brown bears or Kodiak bears. While there are no snakes to worry about accidentally stepping on, we have to remain hyper aware to the presence of much more dangerous predators.”

Babbitt has only been here for three years but in that time, he has taken advantage of the outdoors through backpacking trips, camping and biking. He has had many close meetings with wildlife, even caribou, but always remembered to take certain precautions while venturing into the wild. Marsh described this as being “bear aware” and preparing for potentially dangerous encounters.

One tip for bear safety is to make noise so animals are aware of your presence. Babbitt mentioned bear bells that can be attached to your bike or gear, as well as traveling with others instead of alone. Marsh recommends at least three people in a group.

“We would recommend bear spray or a firearm,” Marsh said. “But if you decide on a firearm, be sure that you’re proficient and comfortable with it.”

Never approach a bear. Babbitt said to keep your distance since brown bears can be very territorial. Marsh said that you should reevaluate your route and be careful to not push boundaries. The same goes for moose: back away slowly and don’t disturb it. Babbitt has run into some while coming around bends in trails but says that it’s essential to not agitate or bother them.

“The consensus is that if you see a moose up close it’s going to somehow attack, but unless in rut, they are typically very passive,” Babbitt said.

Don’t run. Marsh advised to hold your ground if you find yourself face-to-face with a bear, although it can go against your reflex. Babbitt also said to “never make the mistake of walking away from the bear briskly, or running, as it will activate their predatory instinct.”

Whether you are heading from one class to the next on UAA’s campus or walking through thick greenery on a trail, there always exists the possibility of encountering a wild animal.

“You’re in bear country, pretty much, anywhere in Anchorage,” Marsh said. “Which is hard for some people to understand.”

Beckner said that it’s also essential to remember that wildlife is to be respected as well.

“Understand that it’s an animal. They may look cute or may not look cute but, you know, they don’t want to be bothered just like we don’t want to be bothered,” Beckner said.

Remember to stay attentive in order to keep yourself and Alaska’s animals safe and protected.

More resources and information can be found online through wildlife organizations such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as well as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.