It’s a rare occurrence, and one local homeowners would like to keep that way.
For the first time since 1974, a brown bear has been shot on the Douglas Island. Fearing being charged by an estimated 725-pound brown bear, an unidentified Douglas man shot the bear at about 6:30 a.m. May 25, Alaska Department of Fish & Game wildlife regional supervisor Ryan Scott said.
“Normally, we expect bears to just run away, to flee,” Scott said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Apparently this bear turned around and faced the homeowner. The homeowner felt it was imminent, it coming to him.”
After being shot, the bear died on the man’s property, located about 5 miles out North Douglas Highway on the uphill side of the road, Scott said.
After investigating the kill site, Alaska Wildlife Troopers found the man justified in the killing under defense of life or property law, which allows those in danger from wildlife to defend themselves with possibly lethal force, trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters told the Empire Wednesday.
Scott said it was the first documented — meaning legal — killing of a brown bear reported to ADF&G on Douglas since 1974, when a brown bear was killed near Fish Creek. It is illegal not to report the killing of a brown bear to ADF&G.
“It’s a rare event to have them on Douglas or really in Juneau,” Scott said. “Over the years we’ve had reports of bear swimming adjacent to the island, even that’s very, very rare.”
Fish & Game has received reports in recent years of a large bear on North Douglas, but it was a point of contention with Scott and his colleagues whether the bear was a brown bear or just a large black bear. Fish & Game had been shown pictures of what might have been the brown bear taken recently. The bear was pictured from a distance, making it hard to distinguish its species in a photograph.
State law requires the shooter to remove the bear’s skull and hide. The remaining carcass weighed 625 pounds. With the skull and hide, the bear weighed “easy another 100 (pounds). You’re looking at easy 725 pounds estimated,” Scott said by phone.
Scott said the bear’s size was “very respectable.” Brown bear on the island systems of Southeast tend to be larger than those on the mainland. The combined length and width of the bear’s skull was 25.25 inches.
“On the mainland side, I would call that a very, very respectable bear,” Scott added.
Brown bears are a rare sight on Douglas, which is home primarily to black bear. The closest habitat for brown bear is north of Juneau past Cowee Creek, in Berners Bay, across Stephens Passage on Admiralty Island, and in the Taku River system south of Juneau, Scott said.
At this point, Scott said Fish & Game “hasn’t a clue” which direction the bear came from or how long it has been on the island. Excellent swimmers, brown bear can easily swim from Admiralty Island — home to the highest density of brown bears in North America — across Stephens Passage to Douglas Island.
Fish & Game has taken a tissue sample from the bear, which they will check against a DNA database Scott is hopeful will provide a clue to the bear’s provenance.
It’s currently breeding season for brown bears, which may have factored into the bear’s behavior in this case, Scott said. He estimates ADF&G sees about five to 10 defense in life and property (DLP) killings of bears in Southeast annually, mostly in more remote communities than Juneau.
The presence of garbage, food or other bear “baits” can leave a person ineligible for protection under DLP law and subject to criminal charges for hunting out of season, as was found in a 2014 case in which a man was charged with wounding a black bear on Douglas after he found it rummaging through his unkempt garbage.
The legality of a DLP killing depends on the context, Scott said.
“Generally speaking, brown bear are pretty shy unless there are some other issues with food conditioning and things like that,” Scott said. “It comes down to how do you judge a person’s feeling that they are in imminent danger. That can be a difficult thing to assess. It can be a really charged moment.”
Scott said he wasn’t aware of any witnesses of the kill. The man wasn’t required to salvage meat from the bear, and as far as Scott is aware, he has disposed of the carcass without keeping the meat.