'Friendly' highway grizzlies concern biologists

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Reports of ''friendly'' grizzly bears that appear to have been fed by passing motorists on the Dalton Highway about 170 miles north of Fairbanks have prompted state and federal wildlife officials to intervene.

In the past week, motorists have reported bears approaching cars at three spots on a 16-mile stretch of road-near Dall Creek at 91.1 Mile, at the Finger Mountain Wayside at 98.1 Mile and around 107 Mile near Old Man Camp, a former pipeline construction camp.

''We aren't sure if it's one bear or two bears at this point,'' said bear biologist Harry Reynolds of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''We think it's probably two bears because they're far enough apart.''

If it's two bears, it's possible they are siblings that have just been shunned by their mother, said Fish and Game biologist Dick Shideler, another bear expert.

The bears, reported to be 2- or 3-year-old grizzlies, have been approaching cars that stop on the highway. That probably means the bears have been fed by passing motorists and are looking for handouts.

''One of the reports said a bear came right up to two Bureau of Land Management trucks (at Dall Creek) and licked the windshield,'' Shideler told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''That means that bear has been habituated to people and has been actively fed.''

It doesn't take long for a bear, especially a young grizzly that was probably chased off by its mother, to get conditioned by food, Reynolds said. Once that happens, the ending is almost always bad.

''A fed bear is a dead bear,'' Reynolds said.

Shideler provided several ''bean bag'' rounds to a BLM ranger to shoot the bear near 91 Mile in an attempt to scare it off.

''We're in the monitor mode right now,'' Shideler said. ''My guess is we're going to have to do some work'' to get the bears to leave. If the bear or bears persist and become aggressive, they most likely will have to be killed, he said.

It's illegal to feed bears, or any wildlife, and it poses a risk to other motorists who stop to change a flat tire or stretch their legs and are not aware there are food-conditioned bears in the area, Shideler said.

While the bears have shown no signs of aggression, they have not displayed a fear of people or vehicles that bears usually do.

A bear at the Finger Mountain Wayside at 98.1 Mile provided a busload of tourists with a treat.

''One of them walked up to one of our coaches and looked in the windows,'' said Shannon Sehnert of Northern Alaska Tour Co.

Cal Wescott, an outdoor recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, traveled the Dalton Highway on Tuesday to check on the bear reports and found what he described as ''a big, blond, pretty friendly grizzly bear'' near Dall Creek at 91.1 Mile.

''Several people evidently have stopped and fed him,'' Wescott said in a voicemail message Wednesday. ''We're hoping to encourage people not to spend too much time there.''

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