Bear effort bears fruit

Trash strategy is working

Posted: Sunday, September 08, 2002

Since the Orca Point Apartments on Crow Hill Drive switched its plastic Dumpster lid to heavy-duty metal this year, visiting bears have been scarce.

"You don't see 'em up here," said Scot Wilson, who lives in the complex. "That trash can made a world of difference. They can't get it so they don't come back."

Last year, Orca Point's plastic-lid Dumpster - with a bear inside - was highlighted on the Web site as a problem. For Wilson, who likes to watch the animals, the lack of bears this year is a little sad, he said.

"I get a kick out of seeing them myself," he said. "My mother-in-law came up and she didn't get to see none."

Orca Point isn't alone. Metal Dumpster lids significantly have reduced the number of bears getting into garbage in the Crow Hill area, West Juneau, Coogan Drive and Delta Drive this year, according to city officials. But there are still spots in town where bears and garbage are a problem, they said.

Frank Flory, who lives in Lemon Creek, said he's been seeing too many bears.

"Last week in the back of my yard, I saw one coming toward the cans. We keep them empty, we keep the ones with garbage in them on the porch," he said. "It was probably about 15 feet away. I flicked my cigarette butt at it and yelled at it and it ran off. But I wasn't sure which way it was going to go, either."

For more than a year, the city of Juneau has been cracking down on garbage in an effort to protect bears and people. A law that took effect last year mandates that garbage be kept inside or in bear-resistant containers until 4 a.m. on pickup day. This year, the Juneau Assembly required that all Dumpsters in city-designated "bear problem areas" have metal lids. The city also has boosted education and enforcement.

Such changes have made Juneau a leader in the state when it comes to bears and garbage, said Neil Barten, area wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

"We're doing more as a city than any place in Alaska," he told Assembly members at a meeting last month. "There always will be some bears to deal with ... but we're gaining ground we're not going to have to give back."

More specifically, the metal Dumpster lids have made a difference, he said Friday.

"They've helped a lot," he said. "It's kind of a slow process. You're not going to see the effects immediately. A number of bears have had it easy for so long."

Fish and Game has killed large male bears in Douglas and Switzer Creek this summer because they kept raiding the neighborhoods for garbage. And the department moved a sow and two cubs from downtown and a sow and three cubs from the Lemon Creek area because they were in trash. In addition, there have been multiple reports of cars hitting, injuring and/or killing bears on local roads.

Not every Dumpster in town has a metal lid. Of the city's 600 Dumpsters, the new law applied to about 240 owned by restaurants and in "bear problem areas." As of last week, about 170 had metal lids and 70 didn't. People who ordered a metal lid but found them in short supply are given leeway in the ordinance through the end of the year.

Photographer Pat Costello, who edits and sat on a city committee last year that helped craft the new garbage laws, said the lids are being installed "haphazardly."

"They've got them into Great Western and Crow Hill and that had some dramatic effect there, but it's a little slow on the uptake in other places," he said. "That 400-pound bear they killed in Douglas - they replaced the plastic lid a couple of days after the bear was killed."

Overall, there's room for improvement when it comes to Juneau's trash-control efforts, Costello added.

"I certainly think there's been progress made. But when you see Fish and Game killing bears and bears getting hit by cars, it's not going as well as it could," he said. "It's a key indicator things could be going better."

August and September are peak months for bear activity in Juneau. Community Services Officer Bob Dilley, who handles garbage enforcement and bear calls for the police department, said he's written 214 trash tickets and issued 300 warnings this summer. Some people are following the law and some people aren't, he said.

The laws "are working, but it certainly hasn't solved the problem yet," he said. "It is making it go in the right direction."

Police have received fewer bear-related calls this summer than last, from 304 in August 2001 to 252 this August. In July 2001, dispatchers recorded 157 bear-related calls compared to 92 this July.

But officials caution against reading too much into the numbers.

"It comes and goes," Dilley said. "Some weeks we have 40 and some weeks we have 90. The three cubs and the sow that were moved from Lemon Creek resulted in 20 different phone calls in two days. We can have a few bears creating a bunch of calls."

In addition, people might not be calling because they don't want to be cited for garbage violations or because they aren't reporting routine sightings, said Barten of Fish and Game. He's noticed fewer calls into Fish and Game this year compared to previous years. The department usually gets 400 to 500 calls from Juneau residents a year, but doesn't keep detailed statistics.

Karen Cauley, who lives on Kanat'a Street in the Mendenhall Valley, said she hasn't seen any bears this year. Last year, she saw two large bears in her back yard. She keeps her garbage inside her house.

"I think it's good idea for them to fine people that don't take care of their garbage properly," she said. "But I myself don't think it's right that they come and shoot the bears. That's one thing that's good about Alaska is being able to see all the wildlife. ... Honestly, if I see a bear, I don't report it."

Jeff Wilcox, who lives in Lemon Creek and keeps his garbage in a trailer, said bears don't bother him much. Old-timers in Douglas didn't have a problem with bears in the 1930s because the animals were shot, he said.

"There was no learned behavior because it was dead," he said. "I don't know what the answer really is. Shoot 'em, yeah. There's a lot of things people can do to avoid the bears. Loose garbage out or whatnot, that just entices them."

Local and state officials say the root of the problem is trash.

"It's garbage, garbage, garbage," said Maria Gladziszewski, a special projects coordinator for the city. "People think it's the city or Fish and Game, but really they're here because garbage is available. ... If we can do a better job with garbage, the bears won't be in our neighborhood."

Costello, of, said he's disappointed he hasn't been able to reach more people on the bears-and-garbage issue.

"There are still fundamental misunderstandings about what's going on. People don't understand the relationship between people and bears," he said. "There are still some big holes - a lot of Dumpsters left to fix, enforcement is not where it should be, people might not all understand."

Back on Kanat'a Street, change is visible. Ty Grant points to his garbage, securely contained in a wire cage in his back yard. The cage was installed after a plastic Rubbermaid shed proved ineffective in keeping out hungry bears, he said.

"I don't have any problems at all as far as them getting in my garbage. But they walk by here all the time," he said.

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