Why the bear problem hasn't been solved

Only a fraction of local garbage violations trigger citations, and bear education is almost nil. So what's being done to prevent bear run-ins?

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

Five months after passage of a city law meant to keep garbage out of reach of bears, violations are rampant, enforcement is rare and educating the public remains more goal than reality.

Most importantly, people are continually at risk of run-ins with trash-hungry bruins.

If the problem supposedly was addressed in May, why haven't the intended results been realized?

"The solutions are known. What's lacking is action," says Pat Costello, a citizen appointed to the committee formed by Mayor Sally Smith to deal with the urban bear problem. "In terms of what needs to be done, step by step the bear committee had it all on the table last November."

Smith and others admit no enforcement strategy is in place. The Juneau Assembly has heard concerns that enforcement is lacking but hasn't responded.

"Basically we didn't act on the information we received," said Assembly member Frankie Pillifant. "We took it on and we haven't gotten back on it."

Worried citizens and officials fear neither education nor enforcement will occur unless a tragic encounter involving bears and people takes place.

"We've literally had kids chasing bears (and) throwing rocks and sticks," said Police Chief Mel Personett. "We've had tourists downtown surrounding bears to take photographs. This is all a setup for people getting injured. There is a huge need for a public service campaign to address that."


Many people look to the police both to respond to frantic calls about problem bears and to enforce the ordinance that restricts when garbage can be put out for pickup. But the police department is short-staffed. Patrol officers respond to 35,000 to 40,000 service calls each year, and crimes are prioritized.

Although all officers can issue garbage warnings and citations, that responsibility primarily falls to four community service officers three of whom have been out for much of the summer.

"A bear encounter that went bad that could stimulate more attention. But at this point it hasn't happened and bears are competing with other police work and other issues," said Dan Garcia, Juneau's environmental zoning officer and the city's real point man for garbage and urban bear issues.

Outside the police department, he's the city employee empowered to give citations for garbage violations. He said he hasn't issued a single citation this summer. He gives out about six warnings each week, but said he typically refers cases to police.

"It's kind of a political situation. Things happen when the Assembly and the powers in local government decide to allocate funding," Garcia said. "I don't know if people have made a case to the Assembly that this is enough of a life-health-safety issue that they should increase funding."

Garcia said that in addition to garbage and bears, he deals with septic systems, building codes, fire safety and land-use issues.

"These things all just compete," Garcia said.

And he said he's received no directives from the city manager or Assembly to give the bear issue any special attention.

"The attention they put on this is, I guess, what they feel is warranted," he said.

One of the first actions recommended by the mayor's ad hoc Urban Bear Committee was to outline an education campaign that included a city-wide mailing detailing proper trash storage and handling, and a "Bear Fair" education event. Almost a year later, neither has happened.

Garcia said a bear fair is a good idea and he's not sure why it wasn't organized last fall. He's been working all year on an educational mailing and hopes to have it out this month as bears prepare to hibernate. Committee members expected to see that information in the hands of Juneau residents three months ago.

Assembly member Marc Wheeler, who served on the bear committee with Garcia and others, said education is key. Assembly member Jim Powell agreed.

"I do believe there's a lot more we can do," Powell said. "It's unrealistic to think he (Garcia) can give this all the attention it deserves. We need another strategy."

The city recently created a new position, a combination public information officer and emergency services coordinator. Cheryl Easterwood has been in that position since mid-August. But she's busy getting up to speed with the emergency services aspects. She said she hopes to attend to her public information role soon.

Urban Bear Committee members would like to see Easterwood help Garcia with urban bear and garbage education efforts.

Garcia placed some informational ads in the Capital City Weekly and said some television commercials were aired. He's begun developing a school program addressing bears and garbage issues. He said more could be done if more people were working on the issue, but that would require additional funding.

The real problem: garbage

The foremost response a year ago from the bear committee was that Juneau has a garbage problem, not a bear problem. Bears are the symptom.

"Trash storage was the whole nexus of the problem," said Chief Personett, also a member of the Urban Bear Committee. "The availability of a food source is attracting them to the community."

The committee's recommendations led to the passage of a city garbage ordinance in midMay. Five months later, trash collectors arrive to find garbage scattered by bears a dozen times a day, according to Waste Management Route Supervisor Mike Allison. Bears tear the lids off Dumpsters, knock them over and demolish reinforced storage enclosures.

Neil Barten, a state game biologist and a member of the Urban Bear Committee, recently checked out the Lemon Creek area, which he called a hot spot for violations. Barten said about 40 percent of the houses had unprotected trash cans in their yards. Many were homes with garages. He said enforcement officials should focus on problem areas.

"I don't think it's that difficult," he said. "Just hit these hot spots and start issuing warnings and citations and get people to understand this is something we take seriously."

Pillifant said the Assembly heard complaints months ago that people blatantly were violating the ordinance and that it was not being enforced. The Assembly asked City Manager Dave Palmer to talk with police about the issue. Palmer reported to the Assembly on Aug. 6 that in the previous two weeks, police had issued 47 warnings and five citations.

Mayor Smith said there was no discussion whether that was an appropriate level of enforcement. There has been no dialogue between police, city officials and Assembly members as to whether it is time to issue citations in lieu of warnings, or if the public has been given enough time to become educated on the ordinance.

"The thing that's frustrating about them not citing people is they haven't done a good job with systematic warnings followed by citations," Costello said. "If the strategy was to ease this law in, they haven't done a good job educating people."

Palmer said his personal feeling is that people deserved a warning when the program was new, but now they should be getting tickets. He initially said he has not offered direction to police or Garcia regarding garbage enforcement. Later, he added the city has told community service officers there's been enough education and it's time to write citations instead of warnings.

"We get complaints that it is being enforced and that it isn't being enforced," said Palmer. He said he and other officials have been pressured by people wanting the city to drop garbage citations they received.

Police say they're trying

Over the summer, police said they issued 52 warnings and 16 citations each month, on average. Police were not able to supply last year's numbers for comparison.

Chief Personett said police are seeing people who are in compliance, but bears, dogs and ravens are hitting their cans between the hours they are put out and picked up. Others have ordered bearresistant metal lids for Dumpsters, and the shipment is late.

"This leaves us in a terribly awkward position. We want to respect a good-faith effort," Personett said. "If it's a blatant disregard, it's the same thing as speeding you write a citation and make them responsible for their action."

As for the department's four community service officers, one was on maternity leave, one suffered a wrist injury and another has been recovering from spinal surgery. The police force will continue to operate on partial staff through October.

Considering that, Capt. Tom Porter said he thinks there's been a marked improvement over the situation last year. He said the overall picture shows a decrease in the number of animals destroyed and an increase in compliance.

"We're writing some warning citations, but compliance is what we're after, not generating fines," Porter said. "It's an educational process."

Urban Bear Committee members acknowledge the city took an important step in May by passing the garbage ordinance. The formal decision that bears should not be shot by police unless they were threatening is applauded by committee members. The city also ordered 90 bear-resistant trash containers and 70 were installed this summer.

Garcia said Juneau can look forward to another five or six weeks of bear activity. October and November is when bears are most active as they eat voraciously to put on weight before heading to their winter dens. Now is the time to act, said Garcia, and basic things such freezing smelly garbage before putting it out will help solve the problem.

Mark Farmer, bear committee chairman, concurs.

"It's such a non-issue in some respects," he said. "It's so simple. Just take care of your trash."

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