October 29, 2008
Maybe the door of a cabin along some remote bay on Kodiak Island, where 1,000-pound bears are expected to roam, but certainly not the door of a home in an Anchorage suburb.
Yet this is exactly what Chugiak resident Kurt Sorensen did.
Twenty-two feet from his home, he shot a grizzly that measured about 8 feet from nose to tail, Sorensen said. Standing on its hind legs, it would have towered around 10 feet.
Alaska Department Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley, who has weighed a lot of grizzly bears through the years, estimated the dead bear's weight to be at least 1,000 pounds - about the size of three big, burly NFL linemen.
"I don't know if it's a record-book bear," area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott said, "but it's a huge bear. It would have been a big bear on Kodiak."
Kodiak and the nearby Alaska Peninsula are home to the biggest brown/grizzly bears in North America. Bears of Kodiak size are sometimes seen in the Anchorage area - Farley radio-collared one above Eagle River several years ago - but they are rare.
To shoot such a bear, legally, in one's backyard is unheard of. Fish and Game biologists have never encountered a hunt like this before, a hunt in which a man used his home as a blind from which to shoot a bear he let come almost within spitting distance.
At that range, all it took was one shot from a powerful, .45-70-caliber rifle to put the bear down.
"For a brief second, he gave me that perfect shot," said Sorensen, an experienced hunter. "So I shot him in the first vertebrae of the neck. He went down and never moved. I've never seen an animal die so immediately."
A .45-70 rifles pushes a bullet almost as big around as your thumb. When a soft-point bullet like that hits bone at a distance of 20 feet, it flattens with the impact of a giant fist.
"I'm surprised it didn't decapitate the bear," Sinnott said.
Sorensen said he wanted a shot that would ensure the bear couldn't run off into a neighbor's yard.
"I think he did the responsible thing," Sinnott added.
Everyone agrees having a wounded grizzly running around in Chugiak, or any other Anchorage suburb, would be a bad thing. The city has already endured a summer of scary bear encounters. Two people were badly mauled by healthy grizzlies, something that had never before happened here.
And city officials are now contemplating what steps might be taken to mitigate future bear problems in Anchorage. Changing state hunting rules to allow some bear hunting in and around the city has been suggested. Amid this discussion, hardly anyone noticed that there is an area where such hunting is already legal.
Sorensen's home just happens to sit in the middle of it.
He lives on a two-acre lot along a road that dead ends near upper Peters Creeks about 1,200 feet above Chugiak. To the east is Chugach State Park, where there is now a small, limited, drawing-permit hunt for grizzly bears. To the west is the Fort Richardson Military Reservation and Birchwood Management Area, where grizzly hunting is banned - as it is to the north in the Eklutna Management Area and to the south in the Eagle River Management area.
Between these closed areas, runs a thin strip of land in state Game Management Unit 14C that was never closed to grizzly hunting. State wildlife regulations, which reference the hundreds of thousands of acres closed to hunting in and around Anchorage and its suburbs, catalog this area as part of the "remainder of Unit 14C."
In the "remainder of Unit 14C," grizzly hunting is open from Sept. 1 to May 31 with a limit of one bear every four years. Most of the "remainder of Unit 14C" is far from civilization near Lake George and the Knik Glacier over the mountains to the east. That is a remote corner of land beyond the wilderness of Chugach State Park far from Anchorage. Every few years, Sinnott said, a grizzly is shot there.
Never before had the biologist heard of a grizzly shot in the thin finger of land along Knik Arm that also falls in the "remainder of Unit 14C."
"I knew I was in a very unique area," Sorensen said
"It's one of these bureaucratic cracks," Sinnott said.
Through the years, the biologist said, the Birchwood Management Area was created between the obvious demarcation points of the Glenn Highway and Knik Arm. Then came the creation of Chugach State Park, which was another management area. Left between was that thin, remnant strip of Unit 14C.
Almost all of the land in the strip is privately owned, with the exception of a couple, small municipal parks closed to the discharge of firearms.
"An occasional moose (is) shot on private property in there," Sinnott said, "(but) I can't remember ever having a brown bear shot."
Bears, though, are regular visitors. Farley has documented plenty of radio-collared grizzlies moving along Peters Creek. In the 19 years Sorensen has lived in the area since moving north from Colorado, he has seen many bears.
"I see a lot of black bears around here, but it's rare for me to see a grizzly," Sorensen said.
He never before shot any either.
Then, a couple years ago, a massive grizzly started making occasional visits to Sorensen's property, and he started thinking about the bear.
"He was enormous," Sorensen said, "and I always said I wanted one big grizzly bear. I passed up quite a few over the years. This one was a monster."
Sorensen had shot black bears back in Colorado, but only one bear - another black bear - in Alaska. That was a large, berry-eating bear from the Mulchatna River drainage the hunter killed for food.
"That was one tender and delicious bear," Sorensen said. "I rendered the fat, and it made the most amazing cinnamon rolls."
That was years back. Sorensen hadn't shot a bear since, until he started thinking about killing this grizzly. So it might live on forever as a trophy in his home.
"He'd been coming around every once in a while, very, very briefly," Sorensen said. "Then, this fall, he came around five or six times."
Or at least there were five or six occasions on which Sorensen saw the bear. There were many nights when the family dogs started barking, Sorensen said. He suspects that on some of those nights, the bear was in the area.
"He was very sly, very secretive," the man said, though by no means timid.
"He wasn't aggressive," Sorensen said, "but I didn't challenge him either."
Farley estimates the bear was 15 to 18 years old. The only way bears survive to that age, he added, is if they avoid people. Aggressive bears in the Anchorage area tend to get shot in defense of life and property or killed by authorities. The defense of life and property law allows anyone to kill a bear to protect him or herself, but the shooter must then skin the bear and turn the hide and skull over to the state. That arduous requirement makes most people avoid so-called DLP shootings at all costs.
As someone who shot a bear in a legal hunt, however, Sorensen is entitled to keep the hide and have it mounted, which he intends to do. He started thinking about that possibility this summer.
When the bear season opened Sept. 1, he was ready with a bear hunting tag. Several times over the course of the month, Sorensen said, he saw this big, old bear moving along or through his yard. Always, though, it was in the bad light of early morning or oncoming night.
"Every time he came around, I had a shot," Sorensen said, but the hunter wanted a perfect shot - a shot at an ideal angle and from such close range that the bear would die instantly.
The shot came "right at dark" on the evening of Sept. 26.
"I was right at the back door," Sorensen said.
The bear was thos e 22 feet away in the yard, and in a blink of an eye, the hunt was over.
"For ease and convenience," Sorensen said, this was the perfect hunt. But as a man who knows the sweat and energy normally required for an Alaska hunt, he felt a touch of guilt.
"I felt a little badly about it actually," Sorensen said.
So along with keeping the bear's hide for a trophy, he tried to eat it, though the meat of grizzly bears tends to be so rancid that even most aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska avoided eating the animals.
"He was incredibly fat," Sorensen said. "He didn't smell too bad. Not pleasant, but OK. I tried to eat him. I always said I'd try."
The taste was awful. He couldn't do it.
He has no plans to shoot another grizzly.
© 2008, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.