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Environment

Trash and a shortage of wild foods are creating a ‘perfect storm’ of bear trouble in Alaska cities

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 24
  • Published September 22

Bear in mountain ash tree, feeding on berries at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, on Sept. 13, 2018. Bears have been visiting the arboretum and climbing trees to eat the berries, amid a low berry year. In an unprecedented move, the facility has been closed because of the bears since Labor Day, Sept. 3. (Photo by Merrill Jensen)

Black bears have taken over a Juneau arboretum, shut down a fish-cleaning facility in Cordova and added to an unusually high year of bear kills in Anchorage, prompting one wildlife authority to call this summer the "craziest" year of bear encounters he's seen.

Poor berry crops and struggling salmon runs in some areas are just part of the reason bears — usually black — might be turning to towns seeking alternatives to the wild food, biologists said. An apparent rise in young black bear numbers is another factor in the growing human-bear conflicts.

There's a common denominator — people leaving out temptations that lure bears, such as unsecured trash or chicken coops without bear-halting electric fences. The increased potential for confrontations has community leaders, including in Anchorage, pursuing new rules requiring better trash management.

"We have a perfect storm — a bumper crop of young animals, what appears to be (food) resource failure, and then highly accessible trash," said Charlotte Westing, area management biologist in Cordova.

Sgt. Robin Morrisett, an Alaska wildlife trooper in Cordova where several bears recently prompted officials to close the fish-cleaning station, said he's handing out $310 tickets when people don't properly protect their trash.

"This year by far is the craziest year for bears I've ever seen," said Morrisett, a longtime wildlife trooper with about 10 years' experience in Cordova.

Sometimes, people aren't at fault, he said recently. The night before, a black bear raided one man's garbage cans, after shredding a wooden storage shed built to protect them.

The bears have learned to break into commercial dumpsters, too, jumping on protective plastic panels to crash through, he said.

"We are just getting hammered with bears and DLPs," Morrisett said, referring to bear kills made by people under defense of life and property.

Morrisett said he's a hunter, but tries to avoid killing bears. He's had to kill about four this year, including the stubborn black bear that recently swam across the harbor and invaded salmon boats.

"He's a critter, one of God's creatures," he said. "We just don't need to kill 'em all."

Some communities have seen unusually high numbers of bear kills outside hunts, involving DLPs or agency kills:

• 41 have been recorded in the Anchorage municipality, including the wilderness of Chugach State Park, one of the highest years in recent memory.

• 23 have been recorded in the game unit that includes Cordova and Valdez. That beats the previous high on record, 11 bears in 2006, though earlier reports don't always support direct comparisons. Fifteen of those kills were in Cordova, population 2,200, with 11 this month alone.

Westing warned the conflicts could continue, as bears race to pack on pounds before winter.

Biologists in Juneau said they're having one of their busiest summers in years.

"Our calls volumes are way up," said Roy Churchwell, the area management biologist.

Through August in the capital city, local police and state biologists received 640 calls of bear encounters, officials said. That beats the 492 calls last summer and fall, and 271 in 2016.

A black bear strolls across Main Street in front of a residential fence decorated with wooden salmon cutouts in Cordova, AK on Aug. 8, 2018. (Milo Burcham photo)

From Juneau to Valdez, the increased activity seems linked to struggling berry crops and generally low salmon runs, officials say. In Anchorage and Homer, berries seem to have fared better, while salmon runs varied.

In Juneau, Merrill Jensen manages the Jensen-Olson Arboretum. The horticulturist said a harsh spring freeze damaged wild berry plants. More unfavorable weather followed, preventing a recovery.

Now, a trio of black bears are clambering up the center's ornamental mountain ash trees, feasting on red berries in shifts, he said last week.

Bears shut down the center for the first time ever starting Sept. 3, when a pair sauntered in from the nearby woods, raising safety concerns, said Jensen.

So far, the bears "pruned" one tree into "sticks." It will have to be cut down, along with maybe a couple others.

Leaf blowers shoo away the animals, sometimes.

"And snap! There goes another branch," Jensen said, watching a bear out his window, in a tree maybe 25 feet off the ground. "Thank you! And now he's putting a big cluster of berries in his mouth! He's just eating away, going, 'What a nice day, la, la, la.' That guy's not budging."

The center could be shut down for weeks longer, he said.

In general, there seem to be unusually high numbers of young black bears benefiting from favorable conditions in previous seasons. That includes near campsites across Kachemak Bay from Homer, where encounters are also high, biologists said.

One thing is certain. People are too often the problem, not securing trash or leaving out pet food and other bear enticements, said Ken Marsh, a Fish and Game spokesman.

"That's the lion's share of the issue leading to bears being put down,"  he said.

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