Garbage-munching bears spoiled by their human neighbors could have a new sanctuary under a proposal by a nonprofit group in Juneau.
The project cleared a major hurdle in June with the completion of a land trade between the U.S. Forest Service and a 100-acre Native allotment on Admiralty Island.
The allotment belongs to the family of Angoon resident Gabriel George. George and his family received 220 acres of land on Douglas Island adjacent to Eaglecrest Ski Area.
George, 60, said he is considering leasing 20 acres of the land to a Juneau-based nonprofit called Bear Education & Animal Rehabilitation Sanctuary Inc., or B.E.A.R.S. Inc.
Since 2001 the group has been working to secure land and funding to rehabilitate and return to the wild bears that wander into urban areas for food. B.E.A.R.S. Inc. executive director Chris Grant said the facility also would educate the public on conservation and bear safety.
Desiree Duncan, a land manager for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska who helped broker the land swap, said leasing the land for the project would have to be approved by the regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Grant, an entrepreneur who co-owns the Thunder Mountain Smokehouse in Juneau, said he got the idea to start the sanctuary after an official with the state Department of Fish and Game in June 2001 shot and killed a black bear that had become aggressive in a Juneau neighborhood. The sow's cub also was euthanized.
A photograph of the cub is on a pamphlet promoting the project.
"That flipping cub in that flipping picture just broke my heart," Grant said.
He said "it shouldn't be a death sentence" for bears to become aggressive or enter urban areas in search of food.
Bear rehabilitation and release is not legal in Alaska, but Grant said he will sue the state if it tries to block the project. He said bear rehabilitation programs in other states and countries have been successful and it can work in Alaska, too.
The center also could act as a "halfway house" for bears waiting to be relocated to a zoo or other facility, he said. Plus, bears that cannot be rehabilitated might spend their entire lives at the sanctuary.
"They would be like permanent guests," he said.
Younger bears and bears that can be rehabilitated would be kept in a separate area not accessible to the public, he said.
A conservation and education center would cover topics such as bears of the world, bear folklore in Native culture and garbage bear prevention techniques, he said.
He said the entire project would cost between $7 million and $10 million. Grant said he plans to seek funding for the project this fall but wants to keep the operation a nonprofit.