Because of its location in the midst of prime black bear habitat, Juneau has a high degree of overlap between humans and bears, which often has led to bear-human conflicts. This has prompted the city of Juneau and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to take an aggressive role in addressing the source of many of these conflicts - poorly managed trash.
We can't expect bear and trash problems to vanish completely, but stricter garbage ordinances are a good first step.
Recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was asked some questions:
Question: It seems that there are more bear problems nationally, not just in Juneau. What gives?
Answer: In some areas, climate changes coupled with incursions into bear habitat have brought bears and people too close for comfort. Add to that the increasing lack of understanding by people about wildlife and its behavior and needs, and you have problems. Bears are generally shy of people, but any sort of a reward (food or simply objects to play with) increases the fear threshold of bears, making them more difficult to frighten away. Giving urban planning and refuse disposal more thoughtful consideration could help decrease negative interactions.
Q: Why are there so many bears here? And just how many bears is that?
A: With its marine resources, estuaries with grasses and salmon runs, avalanche chutes with early-greening cow parsnip and lupine, and its diversity of berry bushes (blueberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, cranberries etc.) the Juneau area is exceptionally rich habitat for bears.
Add to that the availability of trash and other edibles from humans as well as enhanced fish runs, and it's clear that this area can support many bears. Although ADFG can't say how many black bears use this area, population estimates run from two to five black bears per square mile of bear habitat. It's especially important to note that the size and distribution of Juneau's human population has changed over the last several decades, and new subdivisions continue to move into prime bear and other wildlife habitat, increasing the potential for conflicts between humans and bears.
Q: What is different this year about the way we deal with trash and bears?
A: Postal customers in the city should have received a flyer a few weeks ago that gives information about new garbage regulations and explains why the Juneau Assembly passed these changes.
The main highlights include:
Garbage may not be put out for pickup until after 4 a.m. on the morning of pickup unless it is stored in an enclosed structure or a bear-resistant enclosure.
In certain "Red Zone" areas, Dumpsters must be covered by metal rather than plastic lids.
You may be cited if you do not comply with the new ordinances.
Q: We used to just shoot bears that came to town. What's wrong with that?
A: ADFG believes the black bear population is stable and although shooting bears might seem to resolve the problem, this is short-term thinking unless the underlying trash problem is addressed. Studies in other areas of the country suggest that it may be better to have bears around that have learned to avoid trash than new bears in an area, continually trying to access garbage. ADFG could institute a scorched-earth policy to kill every bear within a given radius, but this would be politically and professionally untenable.
Q: It's not fair to encourage bears to come into town by having our trash available to them. Can't we simply move "garbage bears"?
A: Rather than labeling bears as "garbage" bears, we should recognize that any bear will eat trash if it's allowed access to it. Bears in the Juneau area eat a mixture of wild and human food - this doesn't make them "trash bears," but opportunists. Whether ADFG shoots or moves bears to get rid of them, new bears will move into the area unless the underlying problem of accessible garbage is addressed.
Q: There has been a lot of fuss about new Dumpster lids, laws and so on. Is any of this making a difference?
Even last summer, refuse collectors were able to see bears give up on Dumpsters with metal lids and move back to plastic-lidded Dumpsters or other accessible garbage. More consistent enforcement of city ordinances, improved bear education for students, and clean-up work from Gastineau Human Services have all helped to improve the situation in our town.
Q: So if we do everything that we are supposed to, we won't see bears in town at all, right?
A: We will still see bears in the area, but the important thing is that if we don't reward them, they likely won't hang around in our yards and streets. Bears are part of our existence here in Alaska, but we need to keep them wild.
Polly Hessing is assistant area wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Division, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.