Bears are stirring in the forests of Southeast Alaska. Nestled into root wads and hollow logs, black bears are waking up from their winter hibernation. In the coming weeks they will be venturing into town, or passing through on their way to greening pastures.
Juneau is surrounded by prime black bear habitat, and it's normal to see bears around town in April as they begin foraging. Adult males are the first to emerge. Mother bears with cubs tend to come out later in the month.
"Those spring cubs are pretty small when they first come out," said state wildlife biologist Polly Hessing. "They aren't ready for big treks, so they're making short exploratory trips. They'll hang around the den for a few days, make a few forays out, then head back into the den. They'll start feeding on avalanche slopes and the places that green up the fastest and soonest."
Spring bears favor budding vegetation such as cow parsnip and skunk cabbage, and will dig up lupine roots. They also scavenge winter-killed animals they may find under the melting winter snow. Many bears head down to the tidal zones to eat emerging sedges.
Bears' search for food can lead them to urban neighborhoods. If they aren't rewarded, they'll move on. If they do find food, the neighborhood has a problem.
"The main thing is that bears don't access human food and get rewarded," said Fish and Game biologist Neil Barten. "If they're on the perimeter of town searching for natural foods, that great, but if they're getting garbage, that's not good."
Barten expects to see a fair number of young bears on the scene this year.
"There seemed to be a lot of females with cubs-of-the-year last year, which means this year a lot of those bears are going to be booted out in June when the moms are mating again," he said. "I would expect those year-and-a-half old bears will be running around this summer on their own for the first time."
Barten and Hessing hope those bears don't find food in Juneau.
"The beginning of the year is the time when human behavior can make the biggest difference," Hessing said. "If people had bears come by last year there's a good chance the bears will come back."
In past years, Fish and Game and Juneau Police have been forced to shoot dozens of food-conditioned nuisance bears. It's a terrible solution, said Barten, because it doesn't address the problem.
"Garbage and bird feeders are the source of the problem. Bears are just a symptom," he said.
Every year, Barten is called upon to live-trap problem bears. He said trapping and relocating bears is an expensive, time-consuming and fairly ineffective solution in the long run. "A couple things happen - if you haven't dealt with the trash, another bear will come in, or the bear comes back," Barten said. "A bear may get killed immediately by another bear when it's moved."
Bob Dilley, the community service officer with the Juneau police, is charged with enforcing the city's garbage ordinances. Dilley's main concern is that people are storing garbage correctly, and making sure people are not putting garbage out early. City ordinances state that garbage cannot be put out earlier than 4 a.m. on the day of pickup.
Bird feeders have proven to be a major bear attractant, and bird feeders should be taken down by April 1. Bird seed is high in protein and fat, and is very appealing to bears. Hessing said there is plenty of natural food available for birds, and there's no need to continue feeding birds after April 1.
"We all like to look at birds, but there's lots of other stuff for them to eat," she said. "It's time to bring the bird feeders inside now, and they can go back out in November."
Because birds tend to be messy eaters and scatter their food, Hessing said it's important to thoroughly clean up old seed from under the feeders.
This spring, hundreds of students in Juneau schools will learn about living with bears, thanks to the city, Fish and Game, Discovery Southeast and the Forest Service.
"We're all taking on responsibility for different grade levels and topics," said Fish and Game educator Kristin Romanoff. "We have four Fish and Game volunteers doing presentations in the third-grade classrooms. Students will be learning about bears' behavior and how to respond, focusing on food conditioning and how to prevent it." First-graders will get an introduction to the three bears of Alaska, and fifth-graders will be looking at bears seasonal movements within a watershed.
Romanoff is also organizing volunteers for door-to-door canvassing to share information on garbage storage and bear awareness. Anyone interested in helping can contact her at 465-4292.
Last year Arrow Refuse, Fish and Game and the city of Juneau worked together on a pilot program testing a bear-resistant trash container. These containers are now available for rent to the public for $9.83 a month, plus the regular hauling fee of $24 a month. Called a toter-tipper, or tipper cart, these 96-gallon containers on wheels are the equivalent of three standard 32-gallon trash cans. Because they are bear resistant, they can be left outdoors overnight.
"We did a pilot program last year in some bear hot spots," said Matt Dull, operations manager for Arrow Refuse. "Last year a bear actually drug one off into the woods, but he couldnt get into it. If a bear cant get into it the first couple times, hell give up and move on."
Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation.