Preparing for the bears

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008

In the summer of 1987, 21 black bears were shot as nuisance animals in Juneau. In the summer of 1991, 19 bears were killed.

In the bad old days of Juneau's urban bear crisis, through the 1990s and the first years of this decade, police received 25 or 30 calls every night in the summer about bears in trash.

In the past four years, however, Juneau has made remarkable strides dealing with bears and garbage, and many in the community want to keep the momentum. Bears will be emerging from hibernation in just a few weeks, and some are already on the prowl.

"I've gotten two reports of bears out and about," said Department of Fish and Game Biologist Ryan Scott. "Phil Mooney in Sitka has also had two reports of brown bears out and his area. From here on, it's more and more likely that bears will be out wandering."

Male bears are the first to emerge from hibernation, and mothers with cubs in the den are the last to come out. Bears searching for food in the wild near Juneau provide great viewing opportunities, as they often head for beaches and the open avalanche slopes and can be safely and clearly viewed.

People are less enthusiastic about seeing a bear through the kitchen window. Juneau is the heart of black bear habitat, and it's natural for curious, hungry bears to check out any potential opportunity. But bears exploring - or simply passing through Juneau neighborhoods - are headed for trouble if they find food.

Last year, some neighborhoods proved to be particularly attractive, and Fish and Game Educator Kristen Romanoff is addressing that. She's held "neighborhood bear awareness" meetings (with pizza provided) and showed slides, talked about bears and demonstrated new, bear-resistant tipper cart style trash cans.

She's planning several more get-togethers in coming weeks.

"There are some hot-spot neighborhoods near the glacier we want to address in early April," she said. "We know we had bears getting into trouble there before."

The turning point for Juneau bears came when residents changed the way they handled their trash. Dumpsters with latching metal lids and tipper cart style trash cans with latching lids kept bears out, and city ordinances requiring residents to keep trash inaccessible to bears eliminated the food rewards.

Arrow Refuse rents bear resistant tipper carts and has about 800 in the community.

Matt Dull with Arrow Refuse said another 100 have been ordered and will be available in late April.

"We have a small trickle coming in all the time, as people leave town or move locations," he said. "We clean them up and make any repairs and turn them right back around in just a couple days. We don't have a waiting list, it's first-come first-served, so I encourage people to call."

The number is 780-7800. The carts rent for $12/month, bringing the total service charge to about $36/month.

"They've been really successful," Dull said. "We've heard all kinds of stories from people about bears trying to get into them. They beat them up but can't get them open."

Dull said the new models are self latching. "It's more convenient," he said. "Sometimes people get complacent and don't latch them, and of course they don't work if you don't latch them closed."

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation. He produces the online publication, Alaska Fish and Wildlife News.

Tips to bear in mind

It's time to put away the bird feeders and pet food and pay attention to trash and pickup routines. Feeding bears, intentionally or negligently, is against the law.

• Garbage cans may be put out on the curb for collection no sooner than 4 a.m. on pickup day.

• After that, garbage must be kept in a bear-resistant container or enclosure. That may be a strong, fully enclosed structure such as a garage, or an enclosure you can't get into without hands or tools. If it can be opened by stomping on it, kicking it, running into it with your body or similar actions, it is not bear resistant.

• Garbage cans must be labeled with your address.

• Garbage cans must be fitted with lids that will remain secure even if cans are tipped over.

Keeping them away

Bird feeders draw urban bears. Although the small seeds seem like an unlikely draw for a bear, bird seed is high in protein and fat and is very appealing to bears.

In the spring, bears eat emerging green vegetation, grass and any winter-killed carrion they can find. That low-protein, low-fat, carbohydrate diet is often insufficient to help bears regain the body weight they lost during hibernation. Throughout early spring, bears are still partly subsisting off fat stored the previous fall.

Bears may not begin gaining weight until the early summer berry crop kicks in. So a bird feeder full of seeds is a major find for a hungry bear.

Feeders should be taken down between April 1 and Nov. 1.

In the spring and summer, there is plenty of natural food for birds, and there's no need to continue feeding birds after the first of April.

Here are three other points to consider:

• Regularly clean barbecue grills, especially the grease trap, after each use.

• Feed pets indoors or pick up excess and spilled food between meals.

• Gardeners should avoid composting meat and should turn their compost over frequently. Finely chopped fruit and vegetable matter will decompose faster and is less likely to attract bears.

• For more information about coexisting with bears, go to www.wildlife.alaska.gov, and click on the link for Alaska's bears. The city of Juneau also has good information at:

http://www.juneau.org/bears/index.php including the regulations.



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