Problem Grizzly

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A grizzly bear that was losing its fear of humans was killed by a state biologist this week near Cooper Landing after he found the bear's shoulder was riddled with buckshot.

The bear's two young cubs were captured and sent to a wild portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Ted Spraker, who administered the lethal drugs Thursday, said people, circumstances and bad luck finally caught up to the young sow and her brood.

Three years ago, Spraker first captured the bear that biologists labeled C-5. The bruin, a youngster, was developing a taste for garbage in Seward. He darted the bear, fitted a radio collar, and let it loose 70 to 80 miles out of town.

With the isolated Kenai Peninsula brown bear population struggling at about 250 animals, the last thing biologists wanted to do was lose a potentially productive sow.

Back in 1999, it looked like C-5 might have a chance.

The biologist hope the bear would lose the memories of eating food discards, fish waste and dog food found on the edge of civilization, and return to foraging in the wild.

It seemed to be working, for a while.

But last summer, the grizzly started patrolling a subdivision near the intersection of the Seward and Sterling highways.

''She ... got into trouble a few times over there,'' Spraker said.

Researchers darted her that fall, weighed her and released her.

As winter settled over the Kenai and grizzlies headed for their dens, biologists could only hope for the best. They didn't know C-5 was pregnant and would give birth to a couple of cubs.

Spraker was optimistic when the bear stayed out of sight through early summer.

But it didn't last.

''About three weeks ago,'' the biologist said, ''she showed up back at Avalanche Acres (the subdivision near the highways). She was into everything, up on decks, looking in windows, pushing on doors.''

The danger couldn't be ignored.

Spraker caught her again -- this time hauling C-5 and her cubs as far as it was possible to drive out onto the Mystery Creek access road that cuts into the heart of the Kenai refuge.

They didn't stay long.

''In about three days, she was up at the Princess Lodge (in Cooper Landing),'' Spraker said. ''She was into the Dumpster, leaning on the kitchen doors.''

Cubs in tow, she worked Cooper Landing's homes, stealing dog food, getting into garbage and showing an ever-diminishing fear of humans.

By last week, the family of bears was a regular at the dump near Sunrise, a roadside stop along Kenai Lake just east of Cooper Landing. She'd lost almost all fear of humans, Spraker said.

''She'd be feeding 10 feet from my truck,'' he said.

''Six days ago, she got into some guy's camper,'' Spraker said.

The man told Spraker he fired a warning shot at the bears in bad light.

''He thought he shot over her,'' Spraker said, ''but he hit her in the shoulder.''

On Thursday, Spraker tranquilized the bear again, thinking he'd relocate her once more. Then he discovered the damage from the gunshot wound.

Given her past behavior and the wounds, Spraker decided someone could be hurt.

Better, the biologist decided, to put C-5 down before that happened.

So on Thursday, with C-5 already sedated, Spraker trickled more drugs into her veins.

The 45- to 50-pound cubs were aggressive and hard to catch, but Spraker corralled them and took them to a wild area of the refuge with plenty of green grass, water and climbable trees.

There was no other option, Spraker said. Zoos already have more grizzly bears than they want. If even one of the cubs survives, it will help the Kenai bear population.

''There's no place to put them,'' Spraker said. ''At least this way they've got a fighting chance.''

Cubs have been known to make it on their own.

''These were big, strong, strapping cubs,'' he said. ''They have a 50-50 chance.''

Spraker knows, however, that 50-50 may be optimistic. Making it through the year will be tough.

''The real problem is they have a tough time denning,'' Spraker admitted.

That is something their mother would have taught them.

Now, the odds are that if another bear doesn't kill the cubs by fall, winter will claim them.

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