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As Anchorage’s bear problem intensifies, a solution inches closer to reality

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Trash that isn't stored properly appears to be a big factor in a reported rise in bear encounters in Anchorage neighborhoods this summer, wildlife officials say. And while Anchorage has made little progress to change the situation in previous years, this summer could be the tipping point.

Scenes like this have become routine: on Wednesday, a young black bear rooted through trash in an overturned garbage bin outside a Fairview home. The bear scurried up a tree and was left alone, but episodes like this often don't end well.

Since June 2014, wildlife officials have killed 17 black bears and four brown bears in the Anchorage area, according to data collected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Citizens have killed 28 black bears and seven brown bears, under defense of life and property laws.

Specific reasons weren't recorded for the kills, but Ken Marsh, a Fish and Game spokesperson, said most of those circumstances likely involved a human attractant, like garbage.

"I think we've definitely seen an uptick this summer (in Anchorage) as far as human-bear conflicts," Marsh said. "And trash is the common denominator."

This isn't a new issue in Alaska's largest city, where bear encounters are a way of life. But in a summer that opened with two fatal maulings in the state, there are signs of widespread interest in doing a better job taking care of trash.

In recent weeks, Anchorage residents have taken to the neighborhood social networking site Nextdoor.com to shame neighbors who leave trash out.

And the city-owned trash utility, which serves areas around downtown and Mountain View, is offering bear-resistant containers to all its customers for the first time this summer.

Carolyn Ramsey has lived in Airport Heights, a neighborhood southeast of downtown bordering the Chester Creek Trail, for nearly a decade. But she was startled by three separate reports this summer of bears running through the area.

Now Ramsey, an officer in the Airport Heights Community Council, wants to plan a neighborhoodwide transition to bear-resistant containers. She said she's talking to the utility, Solid Waste Services and members of the Anchorage Assembly about discounts and public information campaigns.

"We're at the very beginning of (asking), 'How do we be proactive as a community and put up a barrier before something happens?'" Ramsey said. "A fed bear is a dead bear."

A bear-resistant trash container sits along Boyd Street last fall on Government Hill. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

In Government Hill, a neighborhood north of downtown and on the edge of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, that shift has already taken hold, prompted by a disastrous episode two years ago.

In April 2015, wildlife officials moved a family of five black bears to the Kenai Peninsula after the bears were found rummaging through trash in the neighborhood.

A month later, the bears turned up in the Turnagain Arm community of Hope, where they ate chickens, raided trash cans and even entered a van with a person inside. Four of the five bears were killed.

There was an outcry, and the same summer, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz took office.

Suddenly, "it was a higher priority and a bigger push to get bear carts," said Melinda Gant, president of the Government Hill Community Council. Before long, Solid Waste Services had installed a bear-resistant community dumpster.

In 2016, the utility ran a test program with bear-resistant containers for households that was declared a success.

"Since all that happened, we've had no bear issues," Gant said.

Now the utility has made bear-resistant containers a permanent offering. The containers are free at the moment, with a $30 fee to change out the existing container. Starting in January, the utility will bill for the containers, at $2 more than a regular container.

This community dumpster in Government Hill’s Harvard Park allows residents to deposit smelly trash, reducing the potential for bears to get into trash cans. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

"All the havoc it caused when (the bear family) made their presence in Government Hill — it brought things more to the forefront within our mandatory service area," said Birgitta Kyttle, customer services supervisor for Solid Waste Services.

The privately owned utility Alaska Waste, which serves bear hot spots like the Hillside and Eagle River, has offered bear carts since the late 2000s. Before that, Anchorage waste haulers did not offer bear-resistant containers, leaving it to residents.

At one meeting in 1999, residents suggested ammonia, red chili peppers and strapping lids shut with bungee cords.

Matt O'Connell, division vice president at Alaska Waste, said the demand for bear containers has always existed, but manufacturers began responding to the demand in recent years. He likened it to the wider distribution of containers just for organic materials or recycling.

Rick Sinnott, the former Anchorage wildlife biologist, has spent years championing bear-resistant containers. In 2000, he and Assembly member Pat Abney promoted an ordinance to require Anchorage residents use the containers, but Abney was forced to abandon it in a storm of political backlash.

Similar laws now exist in Juneau, Kenai and Seward. But Alaskans generally don't like being told what to do, Sinnott said.

Even so, after years of frustration, Sinnott said in a Thursday interview he sees progress being made.

"It's not informational brochures, it's not fines," Sinnott said. "It's peer pressure that finally convinces people."

State law imposes a $300 ticket for intentionally or negligently feeding bears, which includes leaving out trash so bears can get it. The Anchorage Police Department has written three citations so far this year, said spokesperson Renee Oistad.

The use of bear-resistant containers is still limited. In a city of 300,000 people, about 2,600 bear containers have been deployed by Alaska Waste and about 72 by Solid Waste Services.

The containers, manufactured by the North Carolina-based company Toter, are expensive for the utilities and orders take weeks longer than normal containers to arrive.

Customers, meanwhile, have been leery of paying $2 more per month, Kyttle said. But she said that's been slowly diminishing amid what seems to be constant bear sightings.

A police officer watches a young black bear that had gotten into trash in Fairview Wednesday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

"The bears being present are generating those phone calls," Kyttle said.

The utility is offering 64-gallon and 96-gallon containers, and ran out 64-gallon containers recently. A new order is on the way, Kyttle said.

O'Connell noted that a bear-resistant container is not an instant fix. Teaching people about managing trash and living in an area with bears is critical, he said.

Alaska Waste also prioritizes areas where it deploys bear containers to a map of hot spots, developed with wildlife managers.

"If you don't manage your trash properly, regardless of the receptacle it's put in, it's still an attractant to bears," O'Connell said.

Ramsey, of Airport Heights, said she also doesn't see bear containers as the only solution. But she said it's a piece of the puzzle: "A fairly good-sized piece."

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