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Popular Cooper Landing ‘Candy Family’ brown bears killed in vehicle crashes

Anchorage KTUU-TV logo Anchorage KTUU-TV 10/28/2020 Grant Robinson
a brown bear swimming in the water: A sow and her three cubs nicknamed the "Candy Family" were killed in two vehicle accidents over a span of two days. © Provided by Anchorage KTUU-TV A sow and her three cubs nicknamed the "Candy Family" were killed in two vehicle accidents over a span of two days.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A brown bear sow and her three cubs well-known to wildlife photographers and others who frequented the Kenai River in Cooper Landing this summer, are dead after a series of vehicle collisions.

The bears, nicknamed “The Candy Family,” were popular and easily identifiable because of their unique fur coloration, with lighter fur around the neck and chest resembling a T-shirt. They were common sights along the Kenai and Russian River and though their location made them easy for people to observe, the proximity to development proved deadly.

The area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that the sow and one cub were killed in a collision Oct. 21. Two days later, one of the two surviving cubs was hit and killed by a car on mile 58 of the Sterling Highway. According to Alaska Wildlife Troopers, the last surviving cub kept returning to the scene of the accident, despite efforts to scare it away, leading troopers to deem it a hazard and put the cub down.

“It’s not uncommon for offspring that survive to go back to the site where they were last associated with the sow,” ADF&G Area Biologist Jeff Selinger said. “The chances of that cub making it were pretty slim, to begin with, and with it constantly going back out into the roadway, the way it was explained to me is there was almost another accident produced by that bear running back into the roadway while the troopers were there, so they decided at that time to put it down.”

Wildlife photographer Heidi Hanson says that she first saw the bear family in early May and photographed them between 30 and 40 times over the summer.

“It’s hard to even explain how you can sit there in nature and watch so little seem so powerful at the same time," Hanson said.

Though she’s enjoyed photographing bears for 10 years, Hanson says this family was particularly memorable.

“The markings, number one, and just the playfulness of them. I probably took I’d say 100-300 pictures of the siblings wresting in the water," Hanson said. “My favorite picture I have was my first encounter, and I literally caught the one bear in the air with his mouth wide open going to attack his little sister. So it’s just the wrestling part of it. And they didn’t care that anyone was around. They were never aggressive that I witnessed.”

The bear family makes up the first roadkilled brown bears on the Kenai Peninsula in 2020, Selinger said. In recent years, the ADF&G records show one brown bear was killed by a vehicle in both 2018 and 2019.

“The basic thing is do everything you can to not have distracted driving. Don’t get tunnel vision focused just on the roadway, scan the sides of the roads,” Selinger said. “When you come to places like the area where this one got hit where you’re running right parallel with a river that’s known to have bear activity, take extra caution, maybe slow down a little bit and just be very alert. If one animal crosses in front of you, often times, there will be other ones trailing it.”

Hanson and another wildlife photographer have created a Facebook group for people to share their photos and videos of the bears from the summer.

Hanson says that she and others are brainstorming ways to improve safety for wildlife along the stretch of the Sterling Highway where the accidents occurred, including potentially selling calendars to fund installing signs to warning drivers of areas with frequent wildlife crossings.

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