Bears bounced from downtown

Mother and cubs will be relocated

Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

A mother black bear and two cubs that have been munching unsecured trash in downtown Juneau all summer are in for a paid boat cruise out of town today. They were captured by the state Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday afternoon in an alley near the corner of Fourth and Gold streets.

"I had been kind of keeping track of them and trying to find a place where I would catch them without a bunch of tourists watching," said Neil Barten, wildlife biologist with Fish and Game. "Then I got the call from the police that there were tourists surrounding them downtown."

On Tuesday, the mother and cubs had pulled a few trash bags out of a plastic-lidded Dumpster at the Mendenhall Apartments and were feasting on the contents - pawing a Perrier bottle, strewing a KFC bucket, chomping a discarded TV dinner tray, and crumpling a cottage-cheese container - when Barten arrived.

He tranquilized the 170-pound female bear and her two 40-pound cubs and, with the help of two police officers, loaded them into a truck. The drugged cubs twitched and moaned as half-a-dozen tourists wearing rain gear snapped pictures. One young onlooker asked his parents, "Why are they arresting the bears?"

Barten said the bears were being captured not because they had committed any wrongdoing, but because some downtown residents and businesses still haven't fitted their Dumpsters with bear-proof lids, despite the city ordinance that requires them to make their trash inaccessible to bears.

"People think that with the (former city) bear committee and everything that things are all taken care of, and that these are just bad bears eating trash," Barten said. "These bears are getting into Dumpsters with plastic lids. The reason they are running around is that they still have food, and that is not their fault; that is residents' fault. We are ahead of where we were two years ago, but we still have work to do."

The three bears have been regulars on the city's online "urban bear activity summary" since early July, feeding on unsecured garbage from Cope Park to Starr Hill. On Aug. 8, the baby bears were briefly trapped in a Dumpster with a plastic lid near the corner of Second and Franklin streets. Early on Tuesday, Bruce Griggs watched them meander by his excavator at a work site on South Franklin Street.

"They jumped in the Dumpster, grabbed some bagels and a little cream cheese, and sat there munching with the tourists 10 feet away," Griggs said.

Barten said the mother and cubs have been habituated to people and eating garbage, a fact that makes it much harder to keep them from seeking garbage as a food source again, even if they are relocated. In situations like that, bears are often shot. But in this case, because there are a two 8-month-old cubs involved, shooting them is a lot less "palatable," he said.

Barten will attempt to relocate the animals south of Juneau. Bear relocation, he said, is not a perfect solution.

"Some people think moving a bear is the right thing, but they have been followed with radio collars, and a good percentage of them come back," he said.

Of the bears that don't return, some just disappear and Barten speculated that they die, either as a result of being dropped off in another bear's territory, or because they are so habituated to urban bear life that they can't find enough food in the wild. Because the young bears have learned food comes almost exclusively from a Dumpster, they may have a harder time foraging for natural food.

"The mother, she looks to be about 7 or 8 years old, but the cubs, they may have a harder time catching wild things to eat," he said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at Juneau Empire photographer Brian Wallace contributed to this article.

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