Jane Heisel is used to seeing wildlife roaming in the woods of her South Anchorage backyard, but this is the first year she’s seen brown bears taking to the streets to rummage through trash cans for food.
On Tuesday morning, Heisel returned from dropping off her son at school and saw two brown bear cubs in her driveway. She didn’t immediately see the sow that should have been with them.
“I could tell mom must have been to my left somewhere because they were looking and calling that direction,” she said Friday. “It was strange that she wasn’t responding or coming to them. Being between the cubs and mom wasn’t a great feeling.”
Heisel realized the sow was caught in a trap the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had set up nearby. Because the cubs were frightened, she said, she monitored their location while she waited for a state wildlife official to respond and warned neighbors and children waiting at a bus stop.
Fish and Game killed the sow on Tuesday, according to Dave Battle, an Anchorage area wildlife biologist with the agency. The two cubs, less than a year old, were brought to the Alaska Zoo, where they’ll eventually be transported to a facility in the Lower 48, Battle said.
“Whenever we can, if we have placement for cubs who were orphaned either because the mom had to be killed by agency or she died any other way, hit by a vehicle or whatever, if we have placement for cubs, we’ll catch them and ship them wherever we need to,” he said. “... We can’t do that with adults, they just don’t take to it.”
Reports of the family of three bears getting into trash drew attention from neighbors near Bayshore Drive in recent weeks and prompted police and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to warn people in the area to use caution. State biologists say they are also tracking other reports of brown bears seen digging through trash cans near Rabbit Creek.
Along with the brown bear killed by state wildlife officials this week, a private citizen shot and killed another brown bear on July 12 because it had gotten into a chicken coop on Rabbit Creek Road, Battle said. No brown bears were killed by the department or citizens in Anchorage during the previous two years, he said.
So far this year, a total of 22 black bears have been killed in the Anchorage area either by Fish and Game or private citizens, Battle said. The number of bears killed each year varies slightly, sometimes depending on the amount of available natural food, but 22 is about average, he said.
Brown bears are larger and often more dangerous than black bears because they can be more aggressive when defending themselves, or their food sources, Battle said.
The bears can become habituated to people when they venture into neighborhoods to eat unsecured trash, birdseed or get into chicken coops, wildlife authorities say. When bears become too comfortable around people they can become dangerous. A bear will repeatedly come back to areas with easy access to food, officials say, and often those animals end up being killed to protect the public.
The deaths are completely preventable, Battle said.
“These are all human-caused problems, even when we have to kill bears. ... Bears eat food and we can’t teach them not to eat food,” he said. “Trash is food and when people are leaving trash and bird seed and stuff like that out, whatever bear comes by is going to eventually start going down that road.”
Meanwhile, residents of South Anchorage are keeping each other posted on any additional sightings.
“We’re all vigilant,” Heisel said Friday. “We all understand the risk is a lot greater with a brown bear.”
Biologists are monitoring the situation, but Battle said additional bears may be killed if reports of brown bear activity continue.
“Black bears we give a lot more leeway because often we can handle those situations with education and enforcement,” he said. “If brown bears start getting into trash we still try the education and enforcement, but once trash is on a brown bear’s menu, I don’t know that it’s possible to get it off, so we usually have to kill the bear.”
It’s against state law to leave unsecured trash out and is subject to a $320 fine. Battle urged people to use bear-resistant trash cans or store garbage inside until the morning it is scheduled for pick up. Chicken owners can use electric fences to protect their coops from bears, he said.