Guess who's coming to dinner

Black bears are waking from their winter naps and are looking for easy snacks

Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bears stir from hibernation in mid-April, and they're already starting to prowl beaches, avalanche slopes and garbage cans search of food.

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They'll probably be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

Bears searching for food in the wild near Juneau provide great viewing opportunities. Last year two sows, each with two cubs, spent several days foraging on the big avalanche slope above the flume across from Basin Road.

Delighted wildlife watchers enjoyed a rare opportunity to view six bears at once.

Most people, however, 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.

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.

Bear this in mind Four things to remember about bears and your trash:

• 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.

If your garbage has attracted bears, and you fail to legally store your garbage, you could be cited for maintaining a bear attraction nuisance, a $50 fine for the first offense.

Juneau police got a report this month from the Switzer area of a bear getting into trash; there was another nighttime call over two bears fighting in someone's yard.

Hopefully they weren't fighting over trash. Garbage is the main urban attraction for bears, and the city has taken steps to address it.

In the late 1990s and the first few years of this decade, police received more than a thousand bear calls each year during summer months. Police and Fish and Game agents spent a lot of time dealing with garbage and bear issues.

Dozens of bears were shot. Around 2003 the tide turned, largely because of garbage ordinances.

Bird feeders draw urban bears. Necropsies of bears that had been shot in Juneau revealed bellies full of bird seed. 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 first and November first. Because birds tend to be messy eaters and scatter their food, it's also important to thoroughly clean up old seed from under the feeders.

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.

I use on old full-size fish tote as a compost bin, something in the 400 gallon range. It has a heavy, tight-fitting lid that fastens securely at each corner.

Last summer a bear spent 45 minutes diligently exploring every possible way to gain access and was unsuccessful. He never came back.

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

• 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, and the radio program "Sounds Wild." His column on natural history and wildlife viewing appears every other Sunday in the Juneau Empire. For comments or questions, he can be reached at

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