Biologist Loves Wildlife, Hates Killing Bears

By Doug O’Harra
ANCHORAGE, AK–In a city where bear habitat overlaps site condos and suburban sprawl, assistant state biologist Jessy Coltrane referees between people and wildlife.

She tranquilizes Moose snarled in volleyball nets. Using welder’s gloves, she snatches frightened Porcupines from beneath cars in Midtown parking lots. And since she was hired in 2002 as the assistant area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Coltrane has responded to hundreds of bear-in-the-garbage reports. Now her role has expanded.

The 32-year-old biologist has a lifelong fascination with wildlife. The daughter of an oil company pilot, she grew up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. As a graduate student, Coltrane studied monkeys hunted by local people who ate them for subsistence in the Peruvian Amazon. She has also monitored endangered sea turtles in the South Pacific, Northern Right Whales in the Atlantic and Ringed Seals off Alaska’s North Slope.

This fall, she plans to launch a tracking study of Anchorage’s Porcupines as part of a Ph.D. program at the University of Alaska. A couple of weeks into her new role as the state’s main bear manager in Anchorage, Coltrane talked to the Daily News.

Q. There’s no other place like this, is there? Where you have so many wild animals living inside an urban area.

A. On a large scale like this? No. In a big city like this? No. The fact that there are Brown Bears fishing 50 yards from Folker Street, or 100 yards from Folker Street and Tudor, that’s pretty impressive.

Q. For most of history, people would kill large predators living near their homes. Isn’t the notion that we can tolerate bears a relatively new idea?

A. If we wanted to get rid of all the large predators near our houses, we’d have to get rid of all the large predators in Chugach State Park. I think people have evolved to the sense that we can coexist on some level with large animals. But you have to use common sense. There are times when that coexistence isn’t going to work, when there’s a bear that isn’t happily coexisting with the rest of Anchorage, or there’s a Moose that’s being a little bit too good of a mother on the Coastal Trail and is protecting its calf a little too much.

Q. How busy has it been lately?

A. Right now things are quiet, relatively quiet, and that’s typical for this time of year. Because the berries are ripe, and the fish are in. And so there are not a lot of bears dumpster diving or knocking over trash cans. But then after the berries are gone and the fish are gone in October, and the bears are trying to pack on that last bit of fat, that’s when they start moving back into town and causing more problems.

Q. A dozen Black Bears have been shot or captured so far this season, and two were killed after getting struck by vehicles. With an estimated 250 Black Bears in the municipality and Chugach State Park, could this mortality hurt the population?

A. (Fourteen) bears for Anchorage is not a conservation issue. We’re surrounded by Black Bears and bear habitat, and Black Bears are a lot more reproductive than Brown Bears.

Q. But if Anchorage continues to kill problem bears, could the city become sort of a trap for them?

A. Typically, most urban areas in the United States are population sinks for wildlife.

Q. What does that mean?

A. It means we’re like a giant black hole, a sucking hole of death. You know, it means that we’re producing animals out there in Chugach State Park, and then when they get close to the urban areas, they get shot, they get killed.

Q. The Moose collision rate reflects that — a couple hundred Moose are killed per year inside Anchorage.

A. Yes. We definitely kill a lot of Moose in town, that’s for sure. But I think the difference is that people aren’t intentionally maiming Moose with their cars. Whether it’s a self-preservation thing or it’s a Moose preservation thing, you don’t want to hit Moose with your cars.

Q. And to clarify this, we have lots of Black Bears.

A. Yeah, we have lots of Black Bears. … But do we want to be a city that kills every (bear) that comes in because we are feeding it trash, you know, and we’re creating a problem?  I’m not a huge person. Most of the bears outweigh me. But I can go out, and with a handful of rocks, I can get rid of a Black Bear. I can get rid of two bears. My former boss and I have gotten rid of four Black Bears marauding around together. Of course, two to four against one is a little outnumbered, but it can still be done, and it’s an attitude thing.

But occasionally you run into those bears that are just a little cheekier than most. And you kind of get nervous and wonder: I can’t get this bear to move, or this bear is acting slightly aggressive toward me.

And then we have to make a decision. And usually how we do it is, (we ask) can I walk away from this situation and feel comfortable? And not worry about someone’s safety? And sometimes, you can’t. The bear’s gone to that point, and mainly it’s because it’s so food conditioned, it’s gotten to that point where it’s posing a higher threat than most of the other bears around.

And that’s when we decide we’ll put them down.

Q. Is that hard to do?

A. It’s horrific.  Because we, because of our poor garbage management behavior, as a community, have created a situation that dictates that now,  I have to go out and shoot these bears. It’s a death sentence to the bears. And whether it’s a population issue or not, you feel horrible. Because it’s not the bear’s fault.

Q. What’s an example?

A. When we shot that Brown Bear in Eagle River (in 2004) … It was very, very sad. Two days in a row, it had killed Moose calves in the neighborhood. When it’s starting to kill things in and among the houses like that repeatedly, and it’s using that neighborhood as its territory for killing Moose calves, the step from killing Moose calves to killing a dog to potentially killing a kid or somebody is there, and we just couldn’t walk away from that situation and feel good about it.

So we decided that next time the bear showed up, we were going to go ahead and put it down. That night we received a phone call that the bear was in someone’s bird feeder. And you think, “Oh my gosh, all of the education we have done in this neighborhood, all of the begging, all the pleading, all the nights we patrolled, the citations, everything, and there’s still someone with a bird feeder.”

And so we went out to shoot that bear. My boss shot it from the balcony and grazed it. And it ran off down the river, and as we were running (after it), there was a little trail that goes down to the river between two houses. We spent half an hour down there and the bear was hiding from us. It was, I don’t know, it was 40 yards away. Maybe not even that far. It was kind of down, right by the river, in some thick alders, and it was sitting quietly, hiding from us.

We had to sit there for a half hour before it decided to come out. I’m sure it was terrified. And when it did come out, we shot it.

Q. That must have been very difficult.

A. It’s definitely the worst part of the job. I can shoot Moose that are injured or bears that are injured, and you feel bad. You never feel great about killing an injured animal, but you know you’re doing the right thing. It’s going to die a long suffering death, it’s suffering now, and the chance of it surviving are slim to none. So you’re putting it out of its misery.

But when you have to kill a bear that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it except the fact that it’s become a public safety concern because it’s been attracted into the neighborhoods by irresponsible garbage handling … it’s terrible. .—Anchorage Daily News