A night on bear patrol

A 2 a.m. tour of the city reveals why bear problems persist

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

The stark evidence of a bear's visit was apparent near medical offices on Hospital Drive before dawn one recent morning.

Earlier in the night, the bear pulled bags of medical waste, fast food wrappers and office trash from the Dumpster in front of the Salmon Creek Professional Center. Bloody gauze, a wad of material soiled with body fluids and an amniotic membrane perforator spilled out of a Dumpster.

As the Urban Bear Patrol approached, a yellow house cat eyed members from atop the mess.

"We've hit a new low," said Mark Farmer, a member of the bear patrol and the chairman of Juneau's Urban Bear Committee. "This is a public safety hazard. Can you imagine some kid playing with his cat after that?"


Farmer and bear committee secretary Pat Costello formed the Urban Bear Patrol about a year ago to document Juneau's garbage and urban bear problem, largely out of frustration with what they saw as widespread apathy. After months of patrolling, they've come to recognize specific animals and chronic problem areas. They've also found success stories.

The patrol and the group's Web site, Juneaubears.com, is independent of Juneau's Urban Bear Committee. Farmer and Costello have funded the entire operation out of their pockets. They've posted tips and photographs on their Web site showing how Juneau residents and businesses have kept bears out of their trash or tragically invited bears to feast on it. Hospital Drive Dumpsters have been a prime target for bears all summer.

By 5:45 a.m. that recent morning, Sept. 29, the patrol had moved to the opposite bank of Salmon Creek behind the office of Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc. A bear had tipped over the unsecured and unenclosed Dumpster, spilling medical records, granola bar wrappers, consent forms, contracts, client assessments and program guidelines.

While cruising through downtown, West Juneau, Douglas and Lemon Creek from 2 to 6 a.m. Sept. 29, it became obvious why Juneau has a problem with bears. Juneau neighborhoods reflect a mix of diligence and unconcern. While some people built fortresslike enclosures to protect their trash from bears, their neighbors left cans overflowing with garbage, sabotaging efforts to keep bears out of the area. Reeking Dumpsters without lids feed bears a few minutes away from containers meticulously rigged to keep bears out.

"This is the bondage Dumpster," Costello joked as he pointed out a container on Second Street in Douglas. Chains were wrapped around the container to keep several sheets of plywood pinned tightly to the top.

Glen Thompson of Waste Management, which collects Juneau's garbage, said that solution slows the trash pickup, but is effective.

Costello pointed out the lawn in Churchill Trailer Park in Lemon Creek where a bear was found dead, illegally shot Sept. 4. Across the street, three weeks after the shooting, five bags of garbage spilled off a neighbor's porch.

The Bear Patrol does not write warnings or citations, but it could have written 50 in just a few hours.

"We could write 100 a night, easily," Costello said.

Biologist Polly Hessing of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said one person can cause problems for an entire neighborhood.

"I believe everybody deserves a chance, one chance, but that's all," she said. "There are people trying to do the right thing and they're being penalized because others are coasting. I go to houses and I'm impressed with what they're doing."

Hessing said she sees people going to great lengths to keep bears away from trash. One woman keeps her garbage can in the bathtub until pickup day, an unpleasant but effective strategy. Hessing said groups of neighbors are working to create cooperative solutions, such as building shared trash bins, only to find another neighbor is throwing fish heads on the lawn.

West Juneau provides another good example. Costello points to a Crow Hill apartment complex and condominiums on David Street as dramatic success stories. "This is one of the first places to get metal lids (on the Dumpsters) and the bear activity stopped virtually overnight," he said of the David Street complex.

When that happens, the bears move on to the next easiest meal. The Bear Patrol has seen a decrease in activity on South Franklin Street since bear-resistant containers were installed. But bears are more active than ever in adjacent neighborhoods.

At 4:35 a.m. a bear stood on his hind legs and dug into a Dumpster on Fifth Street next to the Arcticorp Building, also known as the Gold Street Building.

"This guy is incredibly fat," said Costello. "He's put on 80 pounds in the past month."

Five minutes later, a Knightwatch Security officer walked up Fourth Street. A bear was sitting on the Dumpster at Mendenhall Apartments around the corner, he said. He knew the bear.

"He has his rounds," he said. "He's been around all summer."

Farmer and Costello snapped some pictures and the bear abandoned his salmon-and-rice dinner. He ran between two buildings and crawled under a house on Gold Street. At least four times the next day a bear was reported in the Dumpster.

Steve Foster, building manager for the Salmon Creek Professional Center, worked throughout the weekend cleaning up the building's Dumpster's scattered contents. Bears have been a problem all summer, he said, but it's intensified in recent weeks.

"There are three Dumpsters in this area that I know this critter is raiding on a regular basis," he said. "JAMHI that's like a lunchroom. They're in there two or three times a week. The Juneau Recovery Hospital, it's a standing joke that nobody does anything about it."

Foster has been trying to deal with the bear all summer and is at a loss for solutions, he said. He's been reluctant to resort to heavy metal lids because it could make trash disposal difficult for his tenants.

After hearing about the events of the weekend, Foster contacted Fish and Game about setting a trap and Waste Management about ordering metal lids. He talked with his tenants and they agreed metal lids would be a good idea. Kay Kanne, a midwife at the Juneau Family Birth Center, said the medical waste from a birth was mishandled accidentally and it was the only time that has ever happened.

Steve Sundby, program director at Juneau Recovery Hospital, said a bear has been a daily visitor for the past three or four weeks at the hospital Dumpster. He said a new, more bear-resistant Dumpster has been ordered.

Nothing has been done to address the chronic garbage problem at JAMHI's Salmon Creek office this summer, according to Program Director Mark Simonson. But he's considering having a security shed built for the Dumpster.

Nick House, manager of the Mendenhall Apartments, declined to comment about the building's Dumpster. Tenant Clay Harrington has helped repair the Dumpster and clean up the messes. He's seen the bear jumping up and down on the Dumpster until the lids caved in. After they were reinforced with planking, he watched the bear peel the lids up and slide the planks aside. A sheet of plywood was chained over the top last week and so far it's working.

From his 12th-floor apartment Harrington has watched the bear make rounds through the neighborhood. He's has seen some close encounters between the bears and people, and he's worried.

Bears were here first, he said, and they don't deserve to get shot because people can't change the way they deal with their garbage.

"We, being the supposedly more intelligent creatures, should be the ones to figure something out," he said.


Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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