Use tourism dollars to deal with bear problem

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

Juneau's garbage bear problem is a public safety problem and an ethical challenge. I applaud the Empire editorial of Friday, Aug. 4. Over the years there have been many efforts and excellent suggestions on how to deal with the garbage bear problem. Jane Edwards made some excellent suggestions regarding locked Dumpsters in the downtown area in a recent letter to the Empire. The city should purchase such Dumpsters and pay for disposing of the contents during the summer months. I am sure some people might initially object to paying for other people's garbage disposal. However, as a community we often have to pick up the tab for those who can't afford a basic service or won't pay their share - especially when it is in the community's interest.

According to the scientific literature and the experiences of bear viewers at places like Pack Creek, habituated bears are not necessarily dangerous. In fact, there is some evidence that an interaction between a habituated bear and a human is actually less intense than a similar encounter with a non-habituated bear. Habituated bears are simply more tolerant of human presence. They may not run away or act defensively when they have a surprise encounter with a person only 25 or 50 feet away. The level of habituation varies with each individual bear. For some bears their level of habituation allows them to access the natural foods bordering our neighborhoods day or night. More habituated bears may travel through suburban streets to access natural foods. On the other hand most black bears that injure people in campground and urban settings are food-conditioned bears. Food-conditioned bears associate people with food, garbage, or other novel items. Every time they overcome their reluctance to be in close proximity to people they are rewarded by food. Unfortunately any habituated bear that is drawn to Juneau by its urban food odors is doomed to become food-conditioned because of the many opportunities for an easy meal. So the community is continuously attracting, food-conditioning and destroying bears.

In the eighteen years that I have lived in Juneau the problem hasn't gone away, although some years fewer bears are killed than others. Yet Juneau's bear problem is predictable and avoidable. It is each individual's responsibility to bear-proof his or her property and garbage. The real bear problem stems from garbage stored outdoors, open Dumpsters, illegal dumping, summer birdfeeders and pet food, and garbage cans put out at curbside long before the arrival of the garbage truck. The occasional bear that makes it into a garage or house is already hooked on garbage and is just a symptom of how bad things are. As a community we need to face the reality that in some cases people are irresponsible. Fines may deter people from being irresponsible with garbage a second time. However, fining people after the fact is an inadequate response because the bears have already been rewarded for their behavior and the learning will not be undone until all rewards are removed. It would seem an appropriate use of the new tourism generated funds to purchase bear-proof Dumpsters and have them emptied daily for those bear hot spots. After all, at the top of every visitors ``must see'' list is a bear. Bears bring thousands of tourist dollars to the state. It seems reasonable that some of this money should go to solve this problem. We have had many years to solve the problem. Solutions were sometimes limited by money. Now we have an option.

Johanna Fagen


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