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Intrusive bear watchers concern state biologist

Wild creatures need peace, not gawkers

Posted: June 19, 2012 - 11:02pm  |  Updated: June 20, 2012 - 7:46am
A black bear feeds on dandelions near Peterson Creek on Monday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
A black bear feeds on dandelions near Peterson Creek on Monday.

Two young black bears have sent camera shutters clicking and gawkers gawking this summer as a result of their preferred dining area alongside Glacier Highway, north of Juneau.

Over the last few weeks, these bears could be seen foraging on dandelions and other greenery in the vicinity of Peterson Creek.

They’ve also caused more than a few traffic delays and are inadvertently prompting some humans to act, perhaps, before thinking.

Onlookers have reported seeing cars and tour buses stopped in the middle of the highway or pulled over in an area with little or no shoulder. There have also been reports called in to officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game of individuals standing mere feet away from these feeding bears. One caller reported seeing people trying to feed the bear from their car window.

Hearing stories like these concerns experts like ADF&G Area Management Biologist Ryan Scott who said situations like this never end well, especially for the bear. He said it’s important to think about the lessons these bears might be learning.

“If they are getting food, they will remember those lessons ... they’ll start associating humans with food,” he said. “It’s the people (of Juneau) that will deal with the negative impacts.”

The bears themselves, he said, appear to be yearlings. It’s likely they were recently “kicked out” by mom and they have found an easy and plentiful food source. To the bears, Scott said, their lunchtime snack spot seems fitting; it’s plentiful and devoid of larger bruins who have already learned that roadsides are not safe havens.

“The bears’ behavior is absolutely normal,” he said. “There’s nothing odd, other than being able to tolerate people watching what they are doing.”

This pair of bears doesn’t concern Scott. It’s the behavior of the onlookers, he said, that is disturbing.

“They are doing inappropriate things, like approaching the bear too close ... parking right in front of the bear ...” he said. “And, it’s absolutely illegal to feed the bears.”

When wild animals feel threatened or oppressed, they will act out, he said, creating a dangerous situation for all involved.

Roadside wildlife is certainly one of the perks to living in Southeast. Scott said he encourages people to take the opportunity to watch bears and other wildlife when they have the opportunity.

“Of the things to remember (when viewing wildlife), don’t approach too close,” he said. “And in this case, I think you have to take into consideration what is safe, as far as the vehicle on the road goes. If you can’t pull your vehicle way off the road, then you should just keep going. Or, if there’s a lot of congestion, then you ought to consider not stopping. There’s no need to add to the mix.”

Scott said there are those who just can’t resist stopping for a while to watch, and that’s fine, just play it safe.

“If you’re a diehard viewer, throw a pair of binoculars in your car. If you’re a photographer, use a camera with a long lens or a good zoom,” he said. “Is there a magic number in the sand for a good distance? Not really. But is (giving the bears) 50 yards too much to ask? 150 feet? No, I don’t think so.”

Of course, never feed the bears or corner them, he said.

“It’s just going to create issues down the road that nobody needs.”

Scott said the bears’ behavior suggests they are “pretty mellow” and they’ve become habituated to people being around.

“They are obviously not out to hurt anybody, but they are wild animals and we have to treat them as such,” he said. “(All it takes is) a startle, a loud noise, an encroachment or something ... (we) don’t want to push any buttons and have a bad outcome.”

To report an unsafe situation, Scott said the public can contact the Douglas Area wildlife Office at 465-4359, or the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, 465-4000.

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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