Biologist barred from discussing bears with media

Fish and Game experts told not to respond to most nighttime calls about Anchorage bears

Posted: Friday, July 29, 2005

ANCHORAGE - The commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game has ordered Anchorage biologist Rick Sinnott to stop talking to the media about conflicts between humans and bears.

Commissioner McKie Campbell also has ordered state biologists in Anchorage to quit responding to most nighttime calls about bears in city neighborhoods.

Campbell said an article in last Thursday's Anchorage Daily News prompted him to tell Sinnott "for the indefinite future to cease representing the department on matters dealing with bears and bear management."

Sinnott commented on an incident in which someone dumped rotting fish in an Anchorage neighborhood, a move that could draw dangerous brown bears close to homes and people.

"I'd like to catch the a-holes who did it and beat the crap out of them," Sinnott was quoted as saying.

Sinnott has been increasingly outspoken in recent weeks about garbage that attracts bears into residential areas. He urged Mayor Mark Begich to take some actions: require trash collection companies to change pickup schedules so people are not tempted to leave garbage out overnight, and assertively enforce a city law that says trash can't be out overnight.

Sinnott's statements in the rotting fish article were evidence of his mounting frustration, Campbell said.

The commissioner said he shares the frustration, but he called Sinnott's statements "unprofessional."

"It's very important we be able to work constructively with the municipality to address this situation," Campbell said.

He and Begich met Wednesday to begin doing that, he said.

Begich and Campbell agreed that more money and attention are needed to figure out how to keep bears from endangering residents and themselves, said city spokeswoman Julie Hasquet.

"He (Begich) does not agree with Sinnott's view it is just the city's responsibility," said Hasquet. She said the municipality is expecting to make an announcement in a week or so that could include such things as changing trash pickup hours.

Campbell said he had decided even before the rotting fish article that Fish and Game should respond less often to incidents of bears wandering through Anchorage neighborhoods.

Sinnott, often with assistant biologist Jessy Coltrane, received calls day and night from residents and police about bears causing trouble, and often went out to track them down. Sometimes they shot the bear, and other times scared it off, depending on the particular bear's behavior and history.

"To some extent, what Rick and Jessy were doing was bailing (out a sinking boat)," Campbell said. "It doesn't matter how fast or how hard you bail if you don't address how fast the water's going in."

Sinnott will not be working on bear issues anymore but will be managing other wildlife in Anchorage, and may discuss other animals like moose and porcupine with the media, Campbell said.

With Sinnott completely off bears, Coltrane will now decide when to race to a bear trouble scene. She will be doing it mostly during the daytime hours.

That would leave it up to the Anchorage Police Department to handle bear encounters at night.

APD doesn't plan to step in unless a bear creates a danger to people or property, said deputy chief Audie Holloway.

"We will be telling people they need to call Fish and Game. It's still their responsibility," Holloway said. "We can't take on the burden of going out and shepherding the wild animals."

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