A black bear inspecting city garbage cans on Admiral Way at about 11:15 p.m. Thursday knew exactly what to do. After knocking over one of the cans with a quick push, the animal pulled out a snack and scampered off into the woods.
Equipped with cameras, walkie-talkies and navy blue "Urban Bear Patrol" hats, Mark Farmer and Pat Costello have been following bear activity along South Franklin Street for the past couple of weeks.
The wooded area between South Franklin Street and Gastineau Avenue is filled with a network of trails and stairs that lead to garbage. The bear's appearance Thursday wasn't unusual, said Costello, a photographer who served on a city committee that recommended solutions to the urban bear problem.
"Literally this is a war zone. There's garbage up and down the street," he said.
Farmer, who led the bear committee, and Costello point to city-owned trash cans as one cause of the problem.
It's hard to enforce the new garbage ordinance designed to protect bears when the city's containers are open and unprotected, Farmer said. And with thousands of cruise ship passengers downtown each day, the bear problem is especially troublesome, he said.
"The city cans flat out need to be replaced," Costello added.
They will be. Streets Superintendent Michael Scott said the city has ordered more than 40 bear-proof containers that should be delivered by a Whitehorse company in the next two weeks. The slanted metal containers have a handle that bears can't open, Scott said. Each costs $535.
During the summer, the city empties its trash containers downtown each morning and often cleans up garbage scattered in front of businesses too, he said.
"It's fairly unusual to have bears in town on South Franklin," he said. "We haul 100,000 pounds a garbage from downtown every year."
Scott said the city plans to put the new containers along Basin Road, Franklin Street, Calhoun Avenue, in front of City Hall and elsewhere downtown. The city has about 55 garbage cans downtown.
"Because of the nature of the new cans, we won't be able to place as many," he said.
The city Parks and Recreation Department has placed bear-resistant containers in parks and along trails in Juneau, and it plans to add more. Although installing the new containers isn't easy, they seem to be working, Park Maintenance Supervisor Jamie Sarsynski said.
"So far, so good. We haven't had a bear knock over a single one of them," he said.
Polly Hessing, assistant area wildlife management biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, urges people to leave bears alone and keep their garbage locked up. Going to South Franklin Street to look for bears is not a good idea, she said.
"Whether you are out in the woods or not, you never want to follow a bear or other wild animal. It might feel like it is being pursued," she said.
A city ordinance that requires Juneau residents to put trash in a bear-resistant container or keep it inside until 4 a.m. on the morning of pickup went into effect this summer. Hessing said the new ordinance and other steps to protect bears are part of a solution.
"To us, the main thing is that the city has started to do something about this. I don't think it's going to solve all of the problems, but it's definitely a start," she said.
South Franklin Street is just one place in the community where bears are finding garbage, Costello said. He plans to take the bear patrol to other neighborhoods and highlight the activity on his Web site at www.juneaubears.com.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.