Haines mourns death of Speedy, the ‘Bearoness of the Chilkoot’

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Speedy at the Chilkoot. (Courtesy Tom Ganner)

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Speedy at the Chilkoot. (Courtesy Tom Ganner)

The upper Lynn Canal, and especially the Chilkoot River corridor, is known for being home to a lot of brown bears. Perhaps the best known in recent years was a 16-year-old sow known as Speedy.

News has recently come to light that Speedy died last fall.

According to Fish and Game biologist Carl Koch, the bear known as Speedy was killed as part of a bear hunt in fall of 2019. Fish and Game can’t give any more details due to privacy issues, but Koch says she was not within any settled area, and the hunt was legal. She was identified by her ear tag, which was there as part of ongoing research.

Speedy — also known as Bear 235 — was born in late winter of 2004, according to local naturalist Pam Randles. Speedy spent her life in the area around Lutak Inlet and the Chilkoot River, which is how she became so well known to Haines locals and tourists.

Dan Egolf is a Haines tour operator and the vice president of the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation. Hoe got to know Speedy through his years guiding tours of the Chilkoot. He says Speedy was often the first bear they’d see in the spring and the last one they’d see in the fall. She was reliable, mostly well behaved around humans, and became a recognizable favorite for bear watchers.

Egolf said news of Speedy’s death is like losing “an old friend, an old sort of trustworthy, reliable friend.”

“Animals have personalities,” he said. “You get to know their personalities. Bears are very smart critters. I’ve seen this bear go to approach the road, where there’s people on the road, and just sit down and wait until the people pass, and then make the crossing, kind of red light-green light sort of thing. So she knew how to get along around people.”

Egolf says Speedy was smart, figuring out how to thrive in such a people-rich environment on the Chilkoot when other bears have been pushed out from the human pressure. Egolf also says Speedy was a very good mother. She raised 8 cubs over her lifetime, the most recent born in 2018.

Speedy was one of the subjects of Fish and Game’s collar study from 2008-2010, where they were able to learn more about her movements over a year, as well as her denning habits. According to a map from the study that Egolf keeps in his office, Speedy kept exclusively to the Lutak and Chilkoot areas and never ventured close to Haines.

Local photographer Tom Ganner says Speedy was the Chilkoot’s star attraction. He has been photographing Speedy since 2010. Ganner called Speedy the “Bearoness of the Chilkoot” and enjoyed introducing her to his photography clients.

“She was gracious, well behaved, well mannered, even tempered — she really delivered for a lot of visitors who came to Haines,” he said.

And raising her cubs on the Chilkoot allowed many people to see bear families interact.

“They always put on a nice show. It was fairly easy to introduce visitors to her and her family because they were pretty well focused on the river, they were used to having their pictures taken. And there never was an issue between between visitors and her and the family,” says Ganner.

Ganner suspects that Speedy’s comfort around people may have made her an easier target during last fall’s hunting season.

While many in the community may be upset at the loss of a well known bear like Speedy and wish she had been protected from the hunt, Fish and Game’s Koch says game management can only manage for populations, not for individuals. Egolf notes that bears like Speedy bring tourism dollars into the community. He hopes at some point there can be a way to manage for that also — not to exclude hunting, but to take into account the tourism bears.

Speedy died during the 2019 autumn bear hunt. She was 15 year old.