Empire editorials: Bears, dogs and politics; Airport controversy needs a dose of common sense

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

Bears, dogs and politics

As resident bears head to their dens for winter, the Juneau bear problem is back in the news with the sudden resignation of bear committee secretary Pat Costello. In comments aired on the radio Friday and in today's Empire, Mr. Costello expresses his frustration over the failure of the mayor, the city manager and the Assembly to take the problem seriously.

Mr. Costello was particularly upset that Mayor Smith didn't deliver on a promise to raise the issue at the Assembly's annual retreat. He vowed to continue serving on the Urban Bear Patrol. The patrol and the group's Web site, Juneaubears.com, is independent of Juneau's Urban Bear Committee.

Granted, there are many more pressing matters dividing the attention of the Assembly and the community at this time. However, one constructive solution to ease the bear-human encounter problem was offered by George Davidson. Mr. Davidson proposed to Mayor Smith the idea of using Karelian bear dogs to "discourage" problem bears from occupying peopled areas.

Biologist Carrie Hunt testified at the Tenth Annual Conference on Bear Research and Management held recently in Fairbanks on the subject of using dogs to control bears. She supports the notion that the often ineffectual use of rubber (or real) bullets, pepper spray and other gadgets to dissuade bears could be replaced by the deployment of trained bear dogs under close supervision.

The Karelian bear dog breed has been used for centuries in Finland and Western Russia to hunt bears. The dogs reportedly do not attack the bears; they simply menace them with aggressive barking and body language.

The simple fact is that dogs and bears don't mix and both species are territorial. In theory, a bear suffering a few encounters with a tenacious Karelian will recognize his reformed territorial boundaries and cease to be a people problem.

No doubt, this solution raises other questions, but if bears can safely be removed from urban areas in this way, all parties win. As Mr. Davidson notes in his letter, garbage containment remains an important aspect of bear control. He sent his letter to the mayor on Oct. 21 and has yet to receive a response. Maybe Mr. Costello was right in his assessment that the mayor seems to be more interested in the politics of the bear problem than in finding real solutions.

Airport controversy needs a dose of common sense

With aircraft safety and tragedy in the national news every day, we in Juneau are absorbed with questions concerning the balance between public recreational use of airport property and public safety. The issue was aired at a public meeting Thursday night with airport staff and FAA officials and their consultants. The hearing is part of the public information gathering process contingent to a draft Environmental Impact Study due in April.

The central issue at the meeting dealt with prospect of cutting down a stand of trees by the float pond. This precaution is proposed because of the real hazard the trees pose by attracting wildlife and obstructing the line of sight needed for airport safety. With an average of two bird strikes by aircraft a year at the Juneau airport it is only a matter of time before probability factors a tragedy. Bird strikes are on the upswing nationwide.

The worst-case scenario in Juneau would likely involve a full jet load of passengers on takeoff, the most vulnerable time for an airplane, striking the wrong kind or number of birds and resulting in a crash with great loss of life.

However far-fetched this scenario might seem, the threat is real, but can be greatly reduced by solutions already identified.

The fact of the matter is that airports and wildlife areas are patently incompatible. This is common sense. Juneau is forever committed to its location in the midst of a vibrant tidal basin. Anticipated growth and needed capital improvements at the airport will only exacerbate the dynamics of these conflicting domains and the incumbent risks.

Although the dike trail and the flora and fauna that accompany it are the result of man-made improvements at the airport, many see it as a natural entitlement. The airport management, after all, has generously accommodated this activity for many years. There seems to be little gratitude for this generosity from some of the more vocal trail advocates.

Without a doubt, the dike trail is one of Juneau's most popular natural assets. No one wants to see this resource eliminated entirely. One possible solution would be to build a new, and better trail closer to Gastineau Channel, thus concentrating people and wildlife away from the airport.

Material for the new, elevated trail could possibly come from the long-discussed dredging of the channel. Additionally, the trail and second crossing might be considered part of an overall plan. Maybe there are other more creative alternatives to be considered. This is a great time to share the possibilities.

Trail users should be able to enjoy their outdoor experience with peace of mind, free from concerns about aircraft safety.

Don Smith



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