City gets out of the business of killing bears

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

Two weeks ago an irate citizen summoned Juneau police because a bear was in his neighborhood. When officers arrived he demanded they shoot the bear on the spot. He was furious they wouldn't.

Four bears have been killed this year, one illegally, and six have been captured and released away from town. Over the course of the summer some residents have expressed bafflement that police simply don't shoot more problem bears.

"Basically, bears were being destroyed in defense of people's garbage," said Police Chief Mel Personett. "Garbage is not a valuable commodity. A $15 garbage can is not worth discharging a rifled shotgun slug near a dwelling in an occupied residential neighborhood."

Last spring Personett and City Manager Dave Palmer sat down and discussed the pros and cons of having police at the forefront dealing with Juneau's urban bear problem.

"He wanted to get us out of the business of destroying these animals," Personett said. "We established up front we have a trash or garbage problem, not a bear problem."

Shooting a bear simply doesn't work, for the same reason trapping a bear isn't a cure-all solution. The problem isn't bears; it's garbage.

"It's not this bear that you have to worry about, It's the next one and next one and next one after that," said state game biologist Neil Barten.

Barten and Personett both serve on Juneau's Urban Bear Committee, formed last fall by the mayor to address bear issues. Glen Thompson, local manager of Waste Management, which collects Juneau's trash, also serves on the bear committee.

"Shooting the bear is not solving the problem, another will just move in," Thompson said. "We've got to deal with the attractant, the garbage."

Juneau is surrounded by bear habitat and bears. Dozens of urban bears have been shot in past years and the problem persists.

"The reality is there are going to be bears around," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Polly Hessing. "We don't want them hanging around, just passing through."

Hessing said biologists are happy to trap and remove an animal if residents make a good-faith effort to deal with the attractants drawing bears into the neighborhood.

Last spring Barten brought a bear expert from Canada to Juneau to lead a bear behavior seminar with police officers and trash-collection crews. What they learned revolutionized the police's approach to bears.

Personett said police had used hazing or harassment techniques to try and drive bears away from property. The first step was to drive up to the bear often as it feasted on trash in a yard or street, and honk the horn, shine the headlights and use the siren to scare it off. These worked at first, but as bears became accustomed to the harassment, they learned there was no danger.

An escalation of techniques was needed and police ultimately found themselves using seal bombs and Twin Shots. Seal bombs are powerful fireworks developed for commercial fishermen to scare seals out of fishing nets. Twin Shot is the brand name of a fireworktype explosive that's discharged from a shotgun.

"Our training showed that with a first-time offender, this may have the desired effect," Personett said. "What we were finding is that bears weren't responding. They were becoming accustomed to this sort of thing."

Personett had another concern as well.

"We were taking a wild animal in a residential neighborhood with kids, people and pets and doing something to cause it to panic," he said.

The whole issue heated up in late June when a mother bear was shot by police and her orphaned cub was captured and euthanized by Fish and Game shortly afterward. Public outcry was swift and many saw the deaths as needless.

"Killing bears in defense of trash is a concern of the community," Personett said.

Within a week Personett met with his staff and officers and agreed bears would not be shot except in the case of extreme danger to life, a true public safety issue.

Personett is particularly concerned about two vigilante acts in Juneau over the summer. A dead bear was found in early September, impaled with an arrow. Another was hit by a car and when the meat was salvaged bullets were discovered in the carcass.

"Those are really troubling incidents," Personett said. "Now we know of at least two wounded bears that were in the community. Now that's really dangerous."

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