Living in Alaska means living with bears. Maybe not all the time, but there will be times when one, two, three or more may come through the yard and sniff around the house. This doesn't mean people need to let fear of bears keep them cowering inside, but it should inspire due caution and bear awareness. To do that, it helps to be informed of where the recent or ongoing bear activity is happening around the Kenai Peninsula.
In an effort to do that, one central peninsula resident, Michael Bernard, decided to use the popular venue of social media to help people become more aware of bear activity, with a Facebook page, Kenai Peninsula Bears, created about a year ago.
"We all are aware that we live in bear country and that they can be seen anywhere and at any time, but living in Sterling and having young children that enjoy playing outside, I felt that it would be helpful to know if a bear has been recently seen in my neighborhood so that my wife and I can be even more conscious of where the kids are when playing outside, or even bring them inside if need be," Bernard said.
As of Monday morning, the page had 1,142 "likes" and has been picking up more followers with each passing week this summer, with particular spikes after periods of very active bear-human interactions. People can post where they've seen bears, where bears have been spotted by others and what the bears might have been drawn to, such as natural food items, like moose calves or salmon, or non-natural, human-generated attractants, like garbage.
Some of the posts are simple statements, onto which others living nearby post additional information in the comments section following each post. For example, on Saturday a page visitor posted, "We live off of Idaho Street, off Walker. A grizzly just stuck his nose in our window and was on our front porch, then ran off."
Others who visit the page share not just the when and where of the sighting, but have used the page to share their feelings on the incidents, such as a woman on July 11 who wrote:
"Read this if you live off St. Theresa's! I just had 10 years scared off my life! I was brushing my teeth and heard a loud banging/thumping noise from the other side of the house. Assuming it was our daughter bumping stuff around in her room I was getting ready to chew her out for being so noisy at midnight. She came out of her room and said, 'Something got knocked over on the front deck.' I made her go into her room and I tiptoed to the end of the hall. I look out our front door because it was creaking. In the door window was a humongous grizzly bear. It got our trashcan open and was standing on its hind legs trying to get in our door. I ran and got my husband out of bed. Eric got the .308 out. It walked over to our RV, nosed around then casually walked down the driveway.
"I called the troopers. Of course nothing they can do but notify Fish and Game. They advised us to keep guns loaded and nearby. Thank God we can still own firearms. They can't help unless the bear actually succeeds in breaking in! At which time they'll either arrest the bear or shoot him. Makes me glad we have the right to bear arms and not the right to arm bears!"
Bernard said that he is happy people are using the page as he hoped, rather than using it as a platform to argue bear population numbers and what to do about this number, perceived as too few by some and too many by others.
"There have been many positive posts on the page with articles and information on how to make your yard less appealing to hungry and curious bears. I haven't had any negative posts or comments from people, although there was a sad post where someone had their family dog killed in their yard by a bear as they watched helplessly from their porch (story in the July 10 edition of Redoubt Reporter). Overall, I'm very pleased that the page is being used for the purposes that I had originally designed it for, and I'm hoping that it will continue," he said.
As the page creator and moderator, Bernard said he is able to track how many people are using or benefiting from the page.
"In the past year that I had the page I saw maybe two or three new 'likes' each week. On the night of June 20 the page had 97 'likes.' That night there were several bear sightings in the Poppy Lane area and a few photos and sightings were posted on my page. Within 24 hours the number of people that 'liked' my page had grown significantly."
By June 23 the page was up to 113 new 'likes.' A day later there were 228 more. As of July 11 new subscribers — "likes" — were 836, with a weekly reach of 4,170 people.
"At the height of the bear incidents the week of June 23 to 29 my page was reaching 17,854 people. Today the page has reached people in 20 different countries in 16 different languages. It is way more popular and getting significantly more use than I had imagined it would when I first started it," he said.
Bernard said that he is also hopeful that the page will get the attention of the Alaska State Troopers, city law enforcement officers, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other land and wildlife management agencies.
"This page would be a great way for them to identify areas of concern and current trends, as well as a place to post information to further educate the public,"Bernard said.
Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with Fish and Game in Soldotna, agreed the page could be useful, so long as people remember one caveat to the Internet.
"One bear sighting can generate hundreds of calls to us, so (this page) could help with that, and I think it's a great idea to share and network information with neighbors, but people should go into it knowing you can't believe everything you read," he said.
The site could also be used to draw attention to neighborhood residents leaving out attractants, such as garbage in nonbear-resistant cans, since this can easily draw in a bear.
"Bears are sticking around because they're habitually finding garbage, sometimes three, four nights in a row. It shouldn't even be left out once, but doing it repeatedly — and then calling and asking Fish and Game to kill the bears — it's not only incomprehensible, it's illegal. And the sad part is, people who are doing it right but living by people leaving out this garbage, will suffer the problems, too," Lewis said.
Lt. Jon Streifel, with the Alaska State Troopers Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement in Soldotna, echoed similar sentiments to Lewis, as troopers have also been inundated with bear calls this summer.
"Once the bears get that trash, it's instantaneous the association they make to that easy meal," he said.
Streifel added that the Kenai Peninsula Bears page could be useful to his agency by providing people a place to post sightings, so that the calls made to troopers are only those requiring actual assistance.
"Just seeing a bear doesn't mean we need to be called," he said. "But if the bear is showing aggression, trying to break into your home, presenting a danger, than yes, people should call. The same goes for things left out by a neighbor, if it's car parts or a washing machine, we can't do anything about that, but if it's fish waste, human food or other attractants, then call us and we can come and investigate."
Joseph Robertia is a reporter with the Redoubt Reporter, that covers Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Used with permission.