Grizzly in Alaska. Daniel A. Leifheit, NPS
NewsAuthor: Steven Shaw
DENALI NATIONAL PARK -- For the first time in 36 years, National Park Service Rangers have killed a grizzly which had been rewarded with human food, but not before multiple attempts to keep the bear alive.
The problem bear prompted Denali’s recent closures of the Savage River Area, about 13 miles into the park along the Denali Park Road.
The National Park Service first became aware of a potential problem bear around June 20th, when they were alerted that a bear had charged vehicles along the park road. Two days later on June 22nd, the bear charged a group of hikers on the Savage Alpine Trail in the Savage River Area. Investigators tell TrailMob one of the hikers threw a daypack in hopes of distracting the bear, but consequently ended up rewarding it with human food.
The National Park Service immediately closed the area where the bear incident occurred to the public. Following protocol set forth in the Denali Bear Human Conflict Management Plan, park rangers implemented “aversive conditioning” by shooting the bear with bean bags in hopes of getting the bear to permanently leave the area.
After nearly a week of zero sightings, the NPS reopened the Savage River Area to visitors on July 1st but was immediately forced to closed it again. The same day the area reopened, the bear bit a hiker along the Savage Alpine Trail. On July 3rd, the bear damaged two tents in the Savage River Campground, which forced the NPS to shut down tent camping. When Denali wildlife staff spotted the bear in the campground they again hit it with bean bags, causing the bear to run off.
The original plan was to reopen the entire Savage River Area after the bear was not seen for two weeks, but that kept getting delayed following unconfirmed bear sightings in the area. Once the NPS was able to positively identify the bear, the decision was made to capture and “collar the bear and release it, in conjunction with aversive conditioning … Because the bear had not been seen in a couple of weeks, it was considered reasonable to conduct a ‘hard release,’ once it had been collared. “ Said Denali National Park Spokesperson Kathleen Kelly in a press release.
However, upon successful capture of the bear, park biologists decided it was best to put the bear down. “The bear was in terrible physical condition and had a deformity,” said Dave Schirokauer, Denali National Park Resources and Science Team Leader.
Biologists say the estimated three year-old male grizzly was emaciated, weighing only 130 pounds whereas healthy grizzlies of the same age should weigh between 200 and 250 pounds. Because the bear was so severely underweight, wildlife official could not even securely fit the collar on the bear, and believed it would likely come off.
In addition to being extremely thin, the bear also had two bad injuries and a deformity. Prior to capture, the bear had somehow sustained a broken nose and a broken front left leg that had become badly infected. Besides the broken bones, the bear also had an extra upper-left canine tooth.
“To release the bear, staff would have been required to collar it and subject it to strong aversive conditioning; this is called a ‘hard release.’ The park’s wildlife biologists concluded hitting the bear with multiple aversive rounds as it was released would potentially have compromised the bear further and possibly resulted in additional injuries, given its poor condition and lack of fat” said Kelly.
The decision to kill the bear was a tough decision for park officials who tell us many hours of sleep were lost debating how to handle the situation. Denali Rangers tried multiple attempts to avoid euthanizing the bear, but in the end determined it was the best course of action. “We are all emotionally impacted and physically and emotionally drained by this series of events,” said Schirokauer. “Denali wildlife staff and ranger(s) … pride themselves on managing the park in a manner that is least impactful to wildlife.”
Schirokauer added that when an animal requires destruction due to people’s actions, it is particularly hard on park staff, and “we take the loss of the bear personally. We are also not accustomed to it; it’s been 36 years since the park has killed a food-conditioned bear.”
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