4 bears killed in East Anchorage campground that city repurposed for homeless residents

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game shot and killed four black bears this week at Centennial Campground, an East Anchorage campsite where Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration directed unsheltered people to go as it shut down the Sullivan Arena for use as a mass shelter last week.

In a written statement Wednesday, Fish and Game said the bears it killed on Tuesday — a sow and two cubs, and another adult male bear — “were entering tents to access food and other attractants, including personal hygiene items and trash.”

“Bear structures entering tents or other pose a risk to human safety,” Fish and Game said in the statement. “A bear that is considered a public safety threat, or involved in an attack, may be killed by the Department.”

The Bronson hastily started to direct homeless people to go to city-run Centennial Campground in late June, with little notice to service providers, nearby residents and other city officials, just days before it shuttered the Sullivan Arena a mass homeless shelter on June 30. More than 150 people were camping there as of last week, according to the head of the city’s Parks and Recreation department. Parks and Recreation is managing the campground.

People the city bused to the campground from the Sullivan Arena and other encampments, and others who arrived there, at first had little access to bear-safe food storage. Within days of the city’s decision to repurpose the campground, bears were observed on site, rifling through people’s possessions. The city later provided bear-safe canisters to people staying there.

Fish and Game officials had already warned that the wilderness areas by the campsite, near Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson and Chugach State Park, are heavily trafficked by bears. In its Wednesday statement, Fish and Game referred to it as “vast areas of bear habitat.” Neighborhoods near the park regularly see human-bear conflicts during the summer, especially bears getting into trash.

Fish and Game’s Anchorage-area biologist, Dave Battle, in the statement called killing bears “a very temporary solution,” adding that “there are always going to be more bears in that vicinity.”

“Centennial Campground staff are doing the best they can to manage the campground and minimize attractants, but there are still a lot of tents with food in them,” Battle said. “Until that changes, more bears are going to come into the campground and get into tents.”

That creates an unsafe situation for both the people staying there now and people staying there in the future, Battle said.

Cynthia Wardlow, the state Division of Wildlife Conservation’s regional supervisor for Southcentral Alaska, said the state has not confirmed that anyone staying at Centennial Campground has been injured by a bear. She encouraged people to report bear encounters directly to Fish and Game.

Wildlife officials use 12-gauge shotguns to shoot the bears, Wardlow said. Sometimes the state is able to avoid killing bear cubs, often by placing them out-of-state, but they were unable to in this case, she said. “Once we run out of placement options, we do have to euthanize those animals,” Wardlow said.

While state wildlife officials had worked with the Municipality of Anchorage and Centennial Campground on getting rid of bear attractants there for years, the city had not told state wildlife officials about the changed situation at the campsite ahead of time, Wardlow said.

In an email, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said the municipality has now provided 60 bear-proof food storage containers, 20 bear-proof 32-gallon containers “and is doing hourly clean up efforts to mitigate the trash and food.”

“We also continue to inspect camps and educate campers about bear safe practices,” said the spokesman, Corey Allen Young. “The priority will always be to protect humans and mitigate risks to bears”

Asked if the city is opening itself up to liability issues at the East Anchorage campsite, Young responded, “No. Just like in public camps across Alaska and in the Anchorage, there is inherit risks to being outside.”

Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this report.

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