Don't feed the bears!

'It's not a bear problem. ... It's a people problem.'

Posted: Sunday, June 21, 2009

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito visited in May, he was lucky enough to see a black bear up a tree in the parking lot at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"I think the bar association arranged that for us," he told a delighted crowd of lawyers later. "It's not something that we see that often back in New Jersey or in the Washington, D.C., area."

In the last decade, the bears at the visitor center have become frequent, casual visitors. In the last two months, they've shown up to chomp on the cottonwood catkins and seed pods right in front of everybody.

The U.S. Forest Service staff who run the visitor center want to keep bear watching safe. That's why they're urging whomever has been throwing apples to the bears in the last few weeks to stop.

"It's not a bear problem," said visitor center director Ron Marvin. "It's a people problem."

Food is not allowed around the visitors' center. Even coffee.

"We've seen them out there lapping up drinks that people have left. They really like chocolate mochas, I think," said Marvin. "They're just a lot like us."

It's worth at least an annual warning. Bears like the same food as people, and they're smart. Once they figure out you have food, they can get more and more aggressive. Troublesome bears may be relocated or killed by state biologists. Last year, Juneau-area biologists captured 12 urban-prowling bears. They relocated six, sent two to Fairbanks and killed four.

It hasn't come to such drastic measures at the glacier, said Marvin, where bears show up every couple days. He's trying to nip the trouble in the bud. He attributes the food problem to both tourists and locals.

Some bears lately have been checking out cars in the parking lot. And Marvin has gotten secondhand reports that people were feeding bears from their cars.

The other part of bear management is that everybody is supposed to stay in their designated areas. People on the sidewalks and bears off of them - no trespassing for either species. The visitor center staff, as their bears-and-people management plan dictates, haze the bears when they wander onto the sidewalk.

Most bears are good about it, and Marvin's seen them get to the trail, look left or right, and then scoot across quickly. But some are bolder.

"We've had some bears that they've started to go to the dark side, and we've managed to kind of turn them around," said Marvin.

Lately, for example, a little cinnamon-colored bear has been popping up on the sidewalk and walking toward people. The staff have become more "animated" in trying to instill caution. Hazing techniques include talking, stomping around, clapping, yelling, kicking gravel, blowing an air horn, or tossing a rock at the bear's rump. The staff mix it up, because bears are quick to habituate.

"We don't want regular folks doing that, though," Marvin said.

• Patrick Forgey contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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