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Sunday, September 13, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bear Attacks On People Prompt Lethal Backlash

Washington Post

ANCHORAGE - Bernard Stewart didn't want a grizzly bear roaming around his mountainside homestead. The thing was spooking his livestock and driving his dog, Poochie, nuts. It was turning over buckets in the garden, and even took a bite out of a cabbage.

The bear was surely a danger to him and the neighbors, he thought.

So Stewart grabbed his rifle and found the young grizzly in a wooded gully just a few paces from his house. He figured he was maybe 10 feet away when he dropped the 250-pound creature with a single shot to the head.

"I don't give a damn what laws they've got," said Stewart, who settled here in 1958, a year before Alaska became a state. "People should have the right to get rid of varmints running around the country."

No charges were brought against the 76-year-old Stewart. Shooting bears is allowed in Alaska if human life or property is threatened.

But state game officers worry that too many bears are getting blasted this summer, the backlash from a pair of attacks in early July in which two people were killed and partially eaten. Until this summer, only 27 people had died of bear attacks this century in Alaska.

Now, some Alaskans are wondering if the peace has been forever shattered between the state's 560,000 humans and its estimated 140,000 free-ranging grizzly, black and polar bears.

"Bearanoia is rampant right now," said Bruce Bartley, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "People are just not giving bears the benefit of a doubt the way they used to. It's see a bear, shoot a bear."

In a 36-day period following the first fatal attack, 17 grizzly and black bears - Stewart's was the 17th - were reported killed in south-central Alaska, the state's most populated region. That toll is 10 more bears than were killed on average during all of July and August in each of the past five years, Bartley said.

That some people have itchy trigger fingers is understandable given the gruesome nature of the two fatal attacks, said Stephen Herrero, a University of Calgary biology professor and the author of a book on bear attacks.

"A lot of people simply can't accept that kind of thing," he said. "A lot of people would like to kill all the bears off."

But the fact is, what the bears did was neither surprising nor statistically unheard of, Herrero said. One or two people have been killed by bears in North America every year since 1985.

Killing off all the bears was exactly what some residents of the far-flung fishing village of King Cove wanted to do after the July 10 death of little Anton Bear. The 6-year-old boy, his mother and his 3-year-old sister were walking down a road on the edge of the town, about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage, when a grizzly ambled up in the dim dawn light.

By running instead of playing dead or calmly backing away, the family did exactly the wrong thing, said state wildlife biologist Dick Sellers. The healthy grizzly, his belly already full of tasty garbage from the town dump, instinctively ran down the boy and devoured much of him before two villagers could kill the animal.

Some villagers, already irritated by many summers of coping with roaming, garbage-hungry bears, threatened a slaughter - something that so far has not occurred. The town council, however, authorized police to shoot on sight any bear that wanders into a neighborhood.

"It's still touchy," said King Cove's police chief, Gary Eilers. "Real touchy. It's probably been the biggest crisis King Cove has ever seen."

The King Cove attack followed by only three days another incident about 800 miles away, near the small interior town of Glennallen.

Army Capt. Michael Staver and his wife, Darcy, a Washington state couple vacationing at a lakeside cabin, were chased onto the roof by a cinnamon-colored black bear that came through their window.

Michael Staver finally ran to his boat to go for help.

When he returned with a neighbor, they found that the bear had climbed a spruce tree alongside the cabin, forcing Darcy Staver to the ground. The 150-pound bear was feeding on her when the neighbor, 23-year-old Greg Talley, shot it dead.

Talley said the sparsely populated community, will never view bears the same.

"Now, instead of shooing them off, they're shooting them off," he said.

From the marks on her body, it was clear that Darcy Staver had fought the healthy, well-fed bear like crazy, game officers said. They were at a loss to fully explain the bear's bizarre behavior.

Both attacks chilled Alaskans, about half of whom live in Anchorage. In a state where the First Commandment seems to be "Thou shalt love the outdoors," people made runs on bear-repellent spray at sports shops, and the news media dwelled on the attacks for days.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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