Members of a fledgling Juneau nonprofit group are reworking plans for a bear sanctuary after the state ruled against their proposal to rehabilitate problem bears.
The state Department of Fish and Game told BEARS Inc. in November that it has a long-standing policy against releasing wild animals held in captivity. BEARS, which stands for Bear Education and Rehabilitation Sanctuary, wanted to condition wayward bears at a center in Juneau.
Bears with a penchant for garbage could be taught to avoid human food if they were placed in a environment with natural foods and occasionally given access to garbage cans laced with unpleasant anti-worm medicine, BEARS board members said.
But Fish and Game is concerned about the introduction of diseases and the state's liability if such bears are released, according to a letter from Matt Robus, deputy director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Division Director Wayne Regelin said Fish and Game has to be responsible for human safety.
"It's one thing if a species is extremely rare and you're trying to rehabilitate it," he said. "In this case, there's certainly no shortage of black bears in this area or the rest of the state."
While disappointed, organizers still want to open an education center and exhibit bears, said BEARS Executive Director Chris Grant.
"It doesn't stop us from trying to keep the orphans from getting killed. We still may be able to provide a home for them," he said. "At least if we keep them in town and in view, people will realize there are still things they can do to help prevent (bears from being killed)."
Although the city has strengthened garbage-storage laws over the past two summers, authorities each year kill a handful of Juneau bears that have run-ins with residents and their trash. In one notable example, police shot a sow in a Mendenhall Valley neighborhood in the summer of 2001. Her cub, which had climbed a nearby tree, was euthanized.
BEARS was formed a year ago with a goal of preventing such incidents, Grant said. The nonprofit corporation's board of directors includes scientists, educators, concerned citizens and businesses.
As before, organizers hope to open a center to educate schoolchildren, residents and visitors about bears and trash. They also plan to exhibit brown and black bears in a natural setting, Grant said.
"We're still planning to focus on garbage and what people can do to avoid habituating bears," he said. "Our goal is to keep bears in the wild. Our secondary goal is to prevent the unneeded deaths of some of the cubs. We're not able to help all of the bears. It will be on a case-by-case basis on whether we can do anything at all."
To exhibit live game animals, BEARS will need a permit from Fish and Game and a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, according to the state. Organizers also will need to submit an operation plan to Fish and Game and apply for a city land-use permit.
The project would be funded by visitors and grants. The first phase of the project, including a 3,000-square-foot education center, could cost about $2 million, Grant said.
BEARS has been working with the city to find a site for the project. Earlier plans would have put the facility at the little rock dump off Thane Road. But Grant said organizers would like to use 35 acres of city land at the lower rock quarry near Eaglecrest Ski Area on Douglas Island. A road runs to the site, and the space would be fenced to keep the bears inside, Grant said. The first phase of the project would require 15 acres of land, he said.
But at a meeting last week of the Juneau Assembly's Lands Committee, Assembly member Jeannie Johnson said she was concerned about turning over city land for something that appeared to be a business opportunity. Assembly member Dale Anderson asked BEARS to look at city park land for the project.
Grant said BEARS would be willing to lease or buy the city property near Eaglecrest.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.