The first time Deanna James saw a black bear outside her Bootlegger Cove house was on July 3. The animal was on her deck messing with a big Rubbermaid tote. Later, she discovered some forgotten Halloween candy inside.
Then Tuesday night, near midnight, her dog started barking. She and her husband got out of bed to check on their kids and caught sight of a black bear with a collar around its neck outside. It was disemboweling a trash bag from her can.
The next morning, James called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and talked to Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage-area biologist, to see what they could do. Coltrane told her the bear was after her trash. Her suggestion: Keep it inside or secure it some other way. Bears are smart, Coltrane said. Once they get a snack at a certain location, they come back for more.
James has kids. Her neighbors have kids. Having a bear come back for more in her densely populated, very urban neighborhood seemed like a bad idea. She was willing to do what it took to keep the bear away, but she doesn't have a place to store the trash inside. She heard some people in Anchorage use bear-resistant trash cans so she called the city-owned trash service, Solid Waste Services, and asked about it. The woman who answered the phone told her the agency doesn't offer the cans and wouldn't service a bear resistant can if she bought it herself. (Cans are commercially available for about $300.)
" 'Historically it hasn't been a problem down there (in Bootlegger Cove),' " James said the woman told her.
But, James told the woman, it was now a problem. A big one. The woman said there wasn't anything she could do. She told James to give Fish and Game another call. The idea being that maybe with enough prodding, the biologists would take the bear out. But to James, who grew up in South Anchorage where bear sightings are more common, that seemed like a Band-Aid on a problem that is likely to persist. You can't shoot every bear that gets in the trash, she told me when we talked on Thursday. Eventually you have to contain the trash.
"Just give me a bear-proof can, or let me buy one," she said.
That's the thing: Bears can be a problem for the 13,000 or so customers of Solid Waste Services living north of Tudor Road as far east as Patterson Street and west to the inlet edge of Turnagain, but those customers can't get a bear-resistant can. (No can is actually bear-proof.) The city won't provide them. It's a position that raises questions this summer when bears are making lots of appearances in neighborhoods near downtown, in West Anchorage and in Government Hill.
Fish and Game has asked the city trash hauler to offer bear-resistant cans for years. There have been some high-profile bear incidents in its service area, including last summer when police shot a trash-eating sow and Fish and Game biologists put down its three cubs near Baxter Bog. The city trash utility has refused that request, instead opting to distribute some bear-education materials. The reasoning given over the years has been that bear incidents don't happen much in the service area, that the cans aren't effective and, because trash haulers have to manually unlatch the cans, it costs too much to service them.
Most trash service in the city is done by a truck with a single operator who maneuvers a mechanical arm that grabs the can and dumps it. If the operator has to get out of the truck to unlatch the can, the argument has been, it will take more time to complete his route. This will cost more money.
But, it turns out, the reality of dealing with the bear-resistant cans isn't that big a deal. In fact, it's a tested approach and it works to deter bears. The city's largest trash hauler, Alaska Waste, has offered the cans for eight years and says they've cut down on bear-related trash messes. They do a can demonstration with the bears at the zoo every year. So far, no bear has cracked a can. Fish and Game agreed the cans have deterred bears, though some bear encounters still happen.
Alaska Waste has more than 40,000 customers from Eagle River to South Anchorage. About 1,200 of them are using bear-resistant cans. The cans cost customers an additional $2 to $5 a month, depending on the season. Alaska Waste will also service cans that customers buy themselves so long as they fit their equipment.
"We're just trying to partner with Fish and Game and give another option," said Chris Welker, district manager for Alaska Waste.
(At the moment the cans are on back-order so people who want then need to get on a list.)
It took me two days to get a call back from Solid Waste Services. I finally caught up with Paul Alcantar, the director, on Wednesday. When I asked him about bears getting into trash, he told me I needed to make sure to write about personal responsibility. For example, he said, if he cooks some meat or fish, he freezes the waste and doesn't put it in his can until the morning of his trash day. He suggested people who have problems with bears keep their trash inside. I asked how that would work for someone without a garage who had a lot of trash, say the parent of a child in diapers.
In that case, he said, they could probably use a bear-resistant can. But, he cautioned, the cans aren't that great. He's seen a video at a conference of a brown bear tearing into one of them. And they're expensive, he said. Solid Waste Services is trying to keep costs down, I mentioned that Alaska Waste seems to be managing. Only a fraction of Solid Waste Service's customers would need a bear-resistant can, I said. That's when he told me that Solid Waste Services is looking into offering them. The agency has sample carts on order, he said.
"We are going to be looking at those cans to see what would work for us," he said.
He was new to the city trash service, he said, and he's trying to make the department more responsive to customer needs. The bear resistant cans will probably be available as customers request them, in a program similar to the one offered by Alaska Waste, he said. There has been no official announcement of this program. The start date isn't clear.
Those new cans can't get here fast enough for the residents of Government Hill, who have also been having encounters with bears this summer, including one that's been nicknamed Jay-Bear.
Bobbie Bianchi, who lives on Havard Avenue, sent her grandkids down the alley to pick up food from a neighborhood restaurant recently and they ran right into a black bear. Now they're afraid to play outside, she said. People on her street have been personally handing trash to their garbage man. She has Fish and Game on speed dial.
Cindy Shake, a Solid Waste Services customer who lives in South Addition at 16th Avenue and K Street, had a bear eating trash from a neighbor's can on Tuesday. She be happy to pay extra for a bear-resistant can, she said.
Down at James' house in Bootlegger Cove, where the children dart through the woods near 11th Avenue and S Street all day in the summer, she'll be doing what she can for the rest of the summer to make sure the neighborhood bear doesn't tangle with pets or humans. For now, that means securing the lid of her trash can with bungee cords and hoping for the best.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular opinion column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.