By Joseph Robertia
In a modern-day version of David versus Goliath, played out in Soldotna on Thursday night, David was a Soldotna Police officer with incredible aim and even better luck, while Goliath was a 1,000-pound behemoth of a brown bear that had strode into a residential neighborhood midday like he owned the place.
Officer Victor Dillon was patrolling along Banner Street around 1:30 p.m. Thursday when he spotted the bear crossing into a residential yard, said Soldotna Police Chief John Lucking.
The bear was no stranger to police officers, Alaska State Troopers or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as they had all received numerous calls during the week about a huge brown bear that walked with an unusual swagger and was becoming a nuisance.
“The bear had first been noticed in Soldotna on Sunday evening when it tore the lid off a chest freezer at a residence on South Fireweed,” Lucking said.
It was later seen scavenging in Dumpsters in the area around South Fireweed and Kobuk streets. The bear had been reported as acting aggressive, and a police officer and sergeant attempted to locate it.
“At one point it made a short charge in their direction, but they were not able to safely fire their weapons because of low visibility and nearby residences,” Lucking said.
The bear was sighted in various locations around Soldotna several more times last week, and was also reported to have peered into a home off of Mackey Lake Road. On Thursday, the bear made his final appearance in town.
“Aware that the bear was likely an injured one that had been causing problems in the community for several days, Officer Dillon exited his vehicle with a shotgun in hand,” Lucking said.
The shotgun, a Remington Model 870, was loaded with 12-gauge slugs. As the officer
approached, the animal temporarily disappeared from sight near an outbuilding, but showed itself again roughly 25 yards away.
“When the bear saw him, it charged straight on for a distance of about 14 yards, at which time it quartered slightly away,” Lucking said. “Officer Dillon took that opportunity to step away from the parked vehicle and fire a single shot, dropping the animal. It was fortunate it was out in the open the whole time, so he could get a clear shot, rather than being in the bushes or trees.”
The time of day also minimized the risk of taking a shot at a wild animal in a residential area, since most people were at work and children in school. Still, Dillon had called for backup, but the incident unfolded so quickly he had already dispatched the bear by the time they arrived.
Outside of work, Dillon is an avid hunter, Lucking said, so in addition to his safety and tactical training as a police officer, he has a good understanding of the vital areas of wildlife.
After dispatching the bear, an investigation of the scene revealed the bear had been guarding a caribou skull that had recently been fleshed out for a European mount. While it is unlikely this skull alone drew the bear into the center of town, Lucking said it was clear the bear was defending it.
“I suspect that is what prompted the bear to charge Officer Dillon,” he said.
Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, said it was the largest bear
he’s seen dispatched on the Kenai Peninsula since he took over his position slightly more than a decade ago.
“Standing on its hind legs, it was probably 10-plus feet,” he said. “Even after skinning, its hide was a legitimate 9 ½-square feet, and that’s nose to tail and paw to paw.”
From evaluation of the bear’s teeth, which were in good condition including intact canines, it appeared the bear was around 12 to 15 years old, but a tooth will be pulled for analysis to determine its exact age. It is not uncommon for bears to live into their mid-20s to early 30s.
“We weighed its carcass, hide and head separately, but totaled the bear’s weight was close to 1,000 pounds,” Selinger said. “He had a good layer of fat and good musculature. He was in good condition, not emaciated at all, so it’s unclear why he was in town in the middle of the day, other than it’s fall and bears are in their final push to put on weight and looking for food wherever they can find it.”
The bear did have an old scar from what at one time would have been a large wound on its elbow, which may have been what caused the reports of the bear being injured. However, Selinger said that the muscles in both the bear’s front legs were the same, and the pads and claws were also worn evenly, so it is unlikely that the old injury still plagued him much, if at all.
Kenny Jones, of Skulls and Bones taxidermy shop, also said the bear was the largest he remembers working on from the Kenai Peninsula.
“It took three of us to roll him just while skinning, and that was on a flat trailer,” Jones said. “This guy could have killed you just by lying on you. And its skull was huge. I don’t think I’ve seen a skull that big in four or five years, and the last time I did it was from the Alaska Peninsula.”
Such a large bear showing up in the middle of Soldotna raises the continuing question of the brown bear population on the Kenai Peninsula. The standing population estimate is 250 to 300 brown bears, an amount cited for wildlife management purposes since 1999.
But hunters, outdoorsmen and other peninsula residents say they’re convinced the population has grown, based on the increase in brown bear sightings in recent years.
John Morton, supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said the results of an ongoing study utilizing DNA from more than 1,000 hair samples taken from brown bears on the refuge and Chugach National Forest should yield new, empirically based information.
“We’re in the final throes of the study on the estimate, so it would be premature to share a number right now, but we can say we do already have a number higher than the 250- to 300-bear guesstimate,” he said.
Morton said it is difficult to say for certain why this particular bear showed up where and when it did. Whatever the reason, Lucking and Selinger said that this bear’s appearance speaks to two Alaska precepts.
“This incident is a reminder that it is very important to keep yards free of attractants, especially at this time of year when bears are putting on fat for the winter. Residents are reminded to be careful about leaving out garbage, or, as in this case, animal parts, which might draw bears into town,” Lucking said.
“It’s also a good reminder that we do live in bear country,” Selinger said. “So people should always be aware of their surroundings and remember that bears can be anywhere.”