Solar-powered fence keeps bears out of smokehouse

Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002

DILLINGHAM - While the sight of a brown bear in the wild can be awe-inspiring, the sight of a furry thief in your smokehouse filled with drying salmon can be downright discouraging.

Just ask Anuska Olson. She and her husband, Hjalmar, have spent their entire lives in the Dillingham area, and too many times have unwillingly donated their family's fish to an ursine robber.

"One year I had over 200 fish in the smokehouse," Anuska said. "I went and opened the door one day, and there was a big hole in the back of the smokehouse. All my fish were gone but about 20, and those were sour. That bear ate the good ones and left the sour ones."

Rather than be forced into a situation where a bear must be shot, the Olsons agreed to be part of a local experiment pitting a solar-powered electric fence against the wily and powerful thieves. Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jim Woolington installed the apparatus as a model two years ago.

"We put this up with the idea that the public could actually come see how it works," Woolington said.

Designed and built with the same tools used by livestock farmers, the fence at the Olsons is powered by a solar panel roughly the size of a three-ring binder notebook. Systems also were available using standard house current or car batteries.

"What we are trying to do is prevent problems from happening," Woolington said. "These are basically the same materials used by ranchers, and while we don't do installation, and we don't actually get materials for people, we will definitely give them good ideas and good information if they are interested."

The fence is working.

Hjalmar said he had not seen a better way to keep bears away, other than a rifle. He said the versatile system could be used in many locations.

"The bears don't come around anymore," Olson said. "And it has been pretty bad the last 15 years. It's a great system, and it's for people to come see for themselves. It uses no electricity, and with it being solar-powered, it could be used at a subsistence camp or fishing camp upriver. They could use one of these at Lewis Point or at Ekuk to protect their fish. If enough people were interested, we might even be able to get a price break on materials."

So enticing was the smell of Anuska's fish that before Woolington had a chance to install the fence this year, the Olsons were visited three times by a nosey bear.

"The last time he came, we had another little fence up, but he was getting through that," Anuska said. "So we came out hollering and making a bunch of noise, and he didn't get any of our fish. The next day we put up the electric fence. That's a whole lot of work just so the bears can't get it."

Though they don't reach the smokehouse, ursine prowlers continue to visit the Olsons. One took the time to inspect a small pickup truck and the Olsons 32-foot commercial fishing boat that was readying for the next salmon opener.

"Boy, you missed a million-dollar picture this morning," Hjalmar said. "My son was on his way to work and he looked over as he was going down the driveway and saw a bear on the bow of the boat. We looked for tracks, and it climbed the ladder, and walked all over the boat to the bow. It just stood there, having a good time."

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