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Excuse me, but there's a moose in your swimming pool

Anchorage sprawl has put man and beast in even closer contact than

By Yereth Rosen / December 24, 1999



ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

A Brown bear ambles onto the 17th hole of a local golf course, and competitors halt their games to let the animal play through.

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A young bull moose head-butts several float planes, causing thousands of dollars of damage. A cross-country skier takes the long way through an area forest to avoid a trail where aggressive birds of prey nest.

No, it's not "Wild Kingdom." It's Anchorage, Alaska, where contact with all manner of wild creatures has become almost as common as rush-hour traffic or jaywalking - and also on the rise.

Stories of wayward cougars and irksome elk have become standard fare across the American West during the past decade, as cities such as Denver and Seattle spread out into what was once wilderness. But no other major US city is as accustomed to - or as tolerant of - wild animals in its midst.

Now, as Anchorage sprawls outward, man and beast are on a collision course. Fatal accidents have occurred here before, but wildlife officials worry that as animals and humans jostle more often for elbow room, the problem could become a crisis.

The result could be a series of reforms that change the way residents live their daily lives, touching everything from garbage collection to gardening.

Consider that 250 to 300 black bears and 60 brown bears make Anchorage their home. Because brown-bear hunting is no longer allowed within the city, the total bear population is probably slightly bigger than it was in decades past, says Rick Sinnott, a biologist at the state Department of Fish and Game. But perhaps more important, he says, new generations of bears have shed much of their fear of people. Calls about problem bears in Anchorage are up fivefold in the past decade.

To help residents coexist with wild animals, a task force has written a comprehensive plan, which officials say is the first of its kind in the nation.

The "Living With Wildlife" report, to be presented to the Anchorage Assembly in January, recommends a combination of education programs, incentives, and mandates to promote safety and to conserve of habitat.

What does that mean? Bear-resistant garbage containers on the city's outskirts, for one. Not planting moose-attracting ornamental plants like mountain ash, for another. Not to mention limiting the number of well-tended lawns. (Tender green grass is easy forage for Canada geese.)

To some Anchorage residents, though, the best remedy is a gun. "If a moose hurts my little girls, that moose is dead meat.... Dangerous wild animals have over 99 percent of the state in which to roam. They don't need the city," said local banker Jay Page in an opinion column in the Anchorage Daily News.

People have been killed in recent years by Anchorage bears and by moose within municipal borders. In 1995, a man was killed on the midtown campus of the University of Alaska by a cow moose guarding its calf. Even Canada geese can take their toll when they get sucked into aircraft engines, making the planes lose control.

State biologists do sometimes kill moose and bears believed to pose threats. And local and state officials are mulling over proposals for limited urban hunts, including a moose season in a portion of 495,000-acre Chugach State Park, most of which lies within municipal boundaries. Hunting is allowed in some areas, but the proposal would extend it to a popular section of the park.

While some people call for all urban moose and bears to be killed, that is decidedly a minority view. Public-opinion surveys show that while residents are open to the idea of some Anchorage hunting, they also value the wild animals and view wildlife threats in the context of other urban dangers and nuisances. Even in Chugach State Park, people create more problems than animals do, says park superintendent Al Meiners.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society