A death sentence has been handed down for a pair of trash-eating brown bears in Eagle River.
"They're going to be euthanized," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game assistant Anchorage area biologist Cory Stantorf.
Stantorf and another biologist spent much of Monday afternoon patrolling the Eagle Ridge neighborhood off Eagle River Road looking for the animals after a week's worth of reports of the bears getting into trash cans in the area. On Sunday night, a resident posted a photo of the bears eating trash in a neighbor's driveway — one of numerous reports Fish and Game has received about the bears in recent days.
"I've gotten reports of them strolling out during the daytime and just kind of going through, hitting one house after another," Stantoft said.
That's a big problem. Once brown bears begin feeding on trash, they typically get bolder and more aggressive.
"A brown bear will aggressively defend that food source, and they will defend it from you, me, dogs and kids," he said. "So not only is that person putting their life at risk, but they're putting every kid in the neighborhood at risk."
Killing the animals is the only way to get rid of them, Stantorf said, because once bears get a taste for trash, that's pretty much all they want to eat.
"Once trash is on the menu for a brown bear, it stays on the menu," he said.
Marked for death
Bears are not uncommon in Eagle River. The animals use the Eagle River Valley as a kind of bruin superhighway, moving up and down the river all summer long.
But Stantorf said that when bears move up into the wooded neighborhoods above the river, they'll stick around as long as they're being fed.
"When they smell garbage they come up – they know it's easy calories," he said.
At that point, it's usually game over.
"I can't teach a bear not to eat."
In Eagle River, the problem is with people leaving trash outside their homes, especially at night. On Sunday evening, Eagle Ridge resident Sarah Rutkowski photographed the two bears surrounded by trash strewn across a neighbor's driveway.
Stantorf said people will either store garbage outside all week or take their trash out the day before pick-up — despite municipal code prohibiting the practice.
"It's the people that leave trash cans all week and just keep putting trash in it, and the people that put the trash out before the morning of pick-up," he said.
So far, Fish and Game has shot three bears in the Eagle River area, including a brown bear in that got into a chicken coop in Birchwood and two black bears near the Eagle River Nature Center that were caught breaking into cars.
It's against municipal code to put your trash out the day before pick-up. The fine for setting trash out the day before pick-up is $75, according to Municipality of Anchorage lead land use enforcement officer Rich Fern. Fern said the muni typically tries to give people warnings first, but it does write citations. In areas where problems seem to be cropping up, Fern said the municipality will send blanket mailers to residents reminding them of the rules. Usually, that's enough to get people to shape up.
"Once we do the outreach and public education we actually write very few tickets for this," he said.
But the message isn't getting to everyone. On Monday — the day before trash pick-up — trash cans could be seen alongside the road on Lee Street, Chain of Rock Street and even Bear Paw Circle. One was overflowing, its green lid lifted by the bags inside.
Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said it's that sort of behavior that has biologists like Stantorf frustrated.
"That's like ringing a dinner bell for a brown bear," Marsh said.
If Fish and Game catch a bear feeding on someone's trash, Stantorf said Fish and Wildlife Troopers or biologists will issue a $310 citation.
"Between the troopers and I, we will issue that with a smile on our face because that is the exact reason these bears are ultimately going to have to be euthanized," he said.
No easy solution
The Eagle River bears can't be trapped and moved away, he said, because that presents a challenge to biologists (brown bears don't like to be trapped) and doesn't usually work.
"I either move the problem to someone else, which isn't fair to wherever you're putting the bear, and on the other hand the bear is just going to come back," he said.
He pointed to a case last year when five black bears were trapped on Government Hill and relocated to the Kenai Peninsula. Almost immediately, the bears were eating trash in Hope.
"Those bears are all dead now," he said.
And simply killing the bears isn't a permanent solution, either.
"Unfortunately killing them isn't the simple solution. It's just like putting a Band-Aid over an artery that's been cut. Because all you're doing is removing the offending bears."
Stantorf said he doesn't enjoy chasing reports of problem bears — especially since it's not bears but people who are responsible for the problem.
"The bears are doing what they're programmed to do, is find food and survive. And if the trash wasn't here, the bears would move on," he said. "But these bears have stayed here for at least a week and are still doing this. At some point it's not going to end well, and a point there's a public safety issue where enough is enough."
That's upsetting, he said.
"This isn't a part of the job we enjoy at all."
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-257-4274.