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Biologists angling to catch Starr Hill bears

Second downtown bear family this week rifles through Starr Hill fridge

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2008

Y our correspondent woke up early Aug. 29, heard the radio scoop, and poked her head into her kitchen to squeal that McCain had chosen Sarah Palin to run for veep.

But Palin and I were immediately one-upped.

"I think a bear broke into our kitchen," said roommate Alex Hildebrand, wielding a broom.

The cats, I agreed, would not have dragged 40 pounds of malt grain and sundry trash onto the deck of our downtown Starr Hill apartment, nor would they have stolen the Costco-size tub of animal crackers. But who knew bears liked soy sauce? It was drizzled over the entire kitchen.

Two days later, Hildebrand shooed out a bear who walked in while he was eating dinner.

A bear and two cubs had dropped by one twilight while I was sitting on a deck chair, talking on the phone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cub jump onto the deck railing next to me and peer down.

As a former gorilla biologist who has been charged many times, I lack the instinct to shriek and run. I remarked on the phone that the black creature on the railing next to me was apparently not my cat. The bears left.

After a month of quiet, bears are back - we presume they're the same ones. But this time, they've gone for the house next door.

Friday morning marked the fourth time this week a sow and two cubs have visited Dave Thomson's Starr Hill home.

It's not the first bear visitation there, as evidenced by the two-year-old clawmarks on the deck supports and a nearby tree. Thomson said the bears stole some dry goods then.

State biologist Neil Barten said his team intends to capture, not kill the bears. But catching them poses a pickle. Seeing a snared cub might anger a mother. And leaving a trap unattended might harm a hapless human.

"When it's three, it can turn into a goat-rope in a hurry," he said.

On Friday biologists were considering setting traps at the house and staking them out.

"We'll sit there and watch the traps all night long," said Barten. "We're keeping on top of it, getting a sense of what their patterns are."

This is the second downtown bear family to be targeted for capture this week. Barten and biologist Ryan Scott caught two cubs and a sow near Bullwinkles Pizza, on West Willoughby Avenue, on Wednesday. The weather was too nasty to boat them across Taku Inlet as planned, so biologists hauled them - mother radio-collared and cubs ear-tagged - out near the end of the road.

"Hopefully they'll go to sleep out there," Barten said.

A chronology of this week in bears:

Early Sunday morning. Thomson is out of town. Next-door neighbor Claire Richardson hears wood cracking and looks next door to see bears wandering through lighted home. Bears open fridge, take hard salami, chocolate-chip cookie dough, strawberries. They leave a little dirt but no structural damage or "calling card," according to Thomson. Downstairs, house-sitter Jared Carlson sleeps.

Meanwhile, Richardson's husband, Lisle Hebert, finds car doors open on Kennedy Street, closes them. People find mud inside their cars the next day and start locking their doors.

Early Monday morning. Bears return. Richardson hears it. The doors to the house are locked, but the pantry latch is faulty and they push it open to access the dog biscuits and other food within. Later on Tuesday, the outside door to the pantry is boarded up with plywood. Housesitter sleeps.

Tuesday night. Carlson leaves the TV and lights on upstairs all night. No sign of bears.

Wednesday. Fish and Game biologists get word of two cubs pigging out in the Dumpster near Bullwinkle's Pizza downtown. In textbook fashion, they dart the cubs with syringes attached to 8-foot poles and trap the mother from a nearby tree.

"We were hoping we had solved two problems in one fell swoop," said Barten.

Wednesday, 11 p.m. Back at Thomson's house, a sow tears off plywood enough for cub to enter pantry. Sow and cubs munch dog biscuits, which are about all that's left in there. Bears ignore next-door neighbors' flashlights. Through the wall, Thomson can hear cub chewing. Housesitter sleeps.

Early Friday morning. Bears return and once again tear off the plywood. Finding no food, they rattle the recyclables and leave. Housesitter sleeps.

"I still haven't seen these stupid bears," Carlson said.

Thomson said he's amazed by their dexterity and strength, and relieved that they have done so little damage to his house. But he's about ready for them to start hibernating.

"We're all trying not to be a nuisance to our neighbors," he said.

Bear-proof cans have become popular on Starr Hill this year.

• Reporter Kate Golden apologizes for airing her Starr Hill neighbors' business in the newspaper. Contact her at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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