Bear learns lesson at Sears

Bruin gets sent to the hills after Kenai appearance

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

There's something to be said for good behavior.

A black bear that wandered through the field and woods near Sears Elementary School in Kenai this week is alive in part because of its manners.

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game out of Soldotna responded to the report of the bear near the school Monday afternoon.

Area biologist Jeff Selinger said Fish and Game typically tranquilizes and moves brown bears found in residential areas, while black bears are generally put down and the meat donated to charity.

"(Brown bears) are a species of special concern," Selinger said, explaining that the title has nothing to do with the bear population but rather is an administrative listing.

"We just recognize that brown bears are in a unique situation on the Kenai Peninsula, and we need to look at them a little more carefully."

Black bears, however, generally don't garner the same concern.

"It's not typical for us to move a black bear," Selinger said.

Personnel with the department decided to take a different tack with the wandering bruin Monday, though.

"This bear hadn't caused any trouble, and it was in a high-traffic area," Selinger said. "It probably just wandered into town during the night, like, 'Oh, look where I am.'"

With a large crowd of spectators looking on, Fish and Game biologists shot two tranquilizer darts at the bear. Both hit the animal, but the internal charge in the first dart malfunctioned, Selinger said.

Despite the faulty dart, the process went extremely well, he said.

Selinger complimented Kenai police on their crowd control, and said the bear remained calm and under control.

"There are lots of things that could go wrong," he said. "Except for the dart, everything went right."

Selinger said the bear was a male of reproductive age, probably about 5 years old. It was a little skinny, as most bears are this time of year, but it appeared in good health, he said.

The department marked the bear with a lip tattoo and ear tag for future identification and released it in a nonpopulated area.

"If it shows up again, we'll know it was the same bear," he said.

Selinger said reports of bears wandering into town are not unusual, especially in the spring when the animals are mating and awaiting the salmon runs.

The department has received 30 to 40 calls reporting bears in the past two weeks and has had some continued trouble with individual animals at both Forest Road in Soldotna and Funny River Road.

Selinger said residents and visitors need to be aware they are in bear country and behave accordingly. (See related story, page A-1.)

Sears Elementary School staff apparently takes such advice to heart. The school has a standard practice for dealing with nearby bears and implemented it efficiently Monday, according to principal Michael Wykis.

"We just sort of go through our emergency plan," he said. "It stopped business as usual. We moved slower and made sure all our bases were covered."

For example, the bear sighting came while several classes were scheduled to return from a walking field trip and others were getting ready for recess, Wykis said. The recess was canceled, and chaperones on the field trip were contacted by cell phone and advised to take an alternate route into the school. Staff members were posted at each building entrance to make sure students didn't go outside.

Wykis said the bear already had been tranquilized by the time classes were dismissed, but the school took precautions anyway. Staff members stood guard in front and behind the line of buses as students boarded to go home. Parents were advised to park close to the school and quickly escort their children to vehicles, and parents of students who normally walk home from school were called and asked to pick their children up instead.

If the bear hadn't been tranquilized by dismissal time, Wykis said the school would have held students until the situation was safe or loaded buses one at a time with massive adult supervision.

Despite the potential seriousness of the situation, Wykis said the bear sighting also was quite a thrill.

"A lot of kids thought it was cool. We had a chance to see it walking to the woods," he said. He added that several parents got pictures and some neighborhood children found fur sheddings on trees in the area.

"It was pretty exciting, just not the kind of excitement we typically want during the school day," he said.

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