This summer was rife with bear problems for the Skagway area. Two food-conditioned bears were put down on the popular Chilkoot Trail. In July, a Skagway police officer accidentally shot a brown bear with a lethal slug, instead of a rubber bullet. The police chief later apologized for the hazing-attempt-gone-wrong. Recently, Skagway officers and National Parks staff went through a training to get better prepared if the bear issues continue next summer.
The National Park Service hosted the bear safety training for police and park staff. Ben Hayes is chief of interpretation for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. He says this type of training has happened before, but the Park Service hopes, after this summer’s frequent bear problems, to make it routine.
“We all want to protect the bears in their environment and provide for a safe visitor experience,” Hayes said. “And we’re on the path to doing that effectively next year.”
Hayes says this year was a learning experience for the Park Service and Skagway police. In June, Parks Canada shot two bears on the Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail. A bear had broken into a food storage cabin at the Lindeman City campground. Parks staff said the bears they shot were displaying food-conditioned behavior, making them a threat to hikers.
“You know, it certainly was unprecedented on the trail to take a couple bears at Lindeman City. That was, in the history of the Chilkoot Trail has never happened before.”
Hayes says he doesn’t know for sure how the bears became food-conditioned. But he heard multiple reports of people in vehicles feeding bears on the South Klondike Highway.
“The speculation was that the bears would have a very wide range. They perhaps became food-conditioned through interactions with people along the South Klondike Highway and ranged to the nearby Chilkoot Trail and associated people with food and broke into the ranger cabin at Lindeman City.”
Later in the summer, a brown bear was displaying threatening behavior near a Dyea campground. A Skagway police officer at the scene decided to try to scare away, or haze, the bear. But instead of shooting the animal with a rubber bullet, the officer fired a lethal round. The bear was severely injured, but it hobbled off and survived for about two weeks. That’s when a park ranger who came across the wounded bear decided to put it down.
Skagway Police Chief Ray Leggett said the officer who injured the bear mistakenly loaded the lethal slug instead of a non-lethal bullet. Leggett took responsibility, saying he shouldn’t have sent a brand new officer with no hazing training to the scene.
“I take responsibility for making sure these people are trained and doing their job, and that’s an area I messed up on,” Leggett said in July.
Now, three Skagway officers do have preparation on how to properly scare off a bear. Hayes says that was just one part of the recent training.
“It was both the kind of 30,000-foot view of bear management along with the field exercises. So it was both something that’s comprehensive and informed by the summer incident.”
Hayes says the July incident especially motivated the Park Service to get together with the police department and Alaska Fish and Game to revisit Skagway bear management plans.
He says next summer, as seasonal workers start coming back to Skagway and visitors start showing up in larger numbers, the Park Service plans to strengthen its bear safety outreach and education.
“There’s a lot of opportunities at the beginning of the season when people are getting into town. That is definitely on the top of our agenda.”
Hayes says the outreach might include guest speakers and education for tour guides. He hopes next summer, both people and bears will be safer in Skagway’s bear country.