Slim Pickings

Thanks to an unusually cold and wet spring Juneau's berry patches have been all but bare

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2006

A poor berry harvest this summer in Juneau may have bears looking for alternative sources of food, experts say.

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The summer also has been bad for berry pickers who stock up on the fruit for the winter.

"There's not a berry in sight," said Micalyne Kunz, who usually gathers salmonberries this time of year.

Blueberries are expected to appear this week or the next, which is their normal time to bloom, Kunz said.

Percy Martin said this has been the worst season for salmonberries she has ever seen in Juneau.

"Last year, you could start picking salmonberries in May," which hasn't been the case this year, Martin said.

Spring was unusually cold and wet, said David Lentz, land resources agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks cooperative extension office in Juneau.

Juneau's average temperature in April this year was 39 degrees and rainfall was 4.24 inches, cooler and wetter than last April, which had average temperatures of 44 degrees and 2.96 inches of rain.

The weather didn't stop bushes from blooming, but fewer insects vital to pollination ventured out because of the moisture and low temperatures, Lentz said.

Smaller berry crops are expected for most varieties throughout Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities, he added.

Bears are active from April to November and bears usually feed on berries during late summer. The berry season normally ends in September, Lentz said.

Lentz said he expects to see fewer blueberries this year, as other types of fruits have been almost nonexistent this year.

Last summer, there were enough salmonberries for Kunz to make 33 gallons of fresh packs and 90 cases of jam. Spots near Thane Road were ideal for salmonberries and good picking was available near Eaglecrest Ski Area for blueberries.

Martin said there's not enough salmonberries this year to put up even one pint.

"It's a sign of the times," Kunz said. "Our ecosystem is so delicate that even a small change can throw off everything."

Bears are more likely this year to end up in someone's backyard or even downtown if trash is not properly disposed, said Neal Barten, area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Even the smell of a barbecue could attract a bear, so he urged people to be more cautious than usual. With several weeks of the bear's berry feeding left in the summer, Barten indicated that the situation could get worse before it gets better.

Reports of bear sightings near residential areas are up in the Lemon Creek Valley, and bears have been sighted elsewhere this summer too, Barten said.

Recently, a female black bear, her cubs and a male were discovered eating garbage behind a jewelry store on Franklin Street because of improperly sealed trash.

"They find the weakest link," Barten said.

Martin said she recently saw bears around her car. Kunz, who lives in the same neighborhood as Martin near Willoughby Street downtown, said she saw two bears in her backyard on Friday.

"They do look skinny, so they really must be hungry," she said.

Not wanting to show up at family events empty-handed, Martin said her household is making fireweed jelly and honey.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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