Fish and Game to Southcentral Alaska residents: 'Hang onto your birdseed'

When Bruce Batten looked out his window and onto his second-floor porch in Eagle River early Friday, he didn't expect to see a black bear maneuvering up the steps. He also didn't expect to see it grab ahold of his new bird feeder and begin devouring the seeds encased within.

"In NOVEMBER… really?" Batten wrote in an email to Alaska Dispatch News.

Batten sent photographs of the incident to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which prompted the agency to send out a news release Friday afternoon entitled: "Hang Onto Your Birdseed, Warm Winter Has Bears Stirring," encouraging residents in Southcentral Alaska to keep their bird feeders inside and their trash secured for at least a few more weeks.

Dave Battle, an assistant area wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, said a mix of mild temperatures and little to no snow has led some bears to hang around for longer than usual. Plus, he said, accessible bird feeders and high-caloric trash don't exactly encourage a bear to retire for the winter.

"It's most likely to stay out a bit longer, packing in the last calories that it can," Battle said.

What's ironic about the black bear vs. bird feeder standoff in Eagle River, Batten said, is he used to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before retiring in 1998. He knows the rules, he said.

"As we used to say in the Fish and Wildlife Service, 'Wait until Thanksgiving and then when you eat a bird you can feed a bird,' " he said

But Batten got a new, "particularly nice" bird feeder over the summer, he said, and he was anxious to put it outside. Generally, Fish and Game recommends Southcentral residents keep their bird feeders inside between April and Nov. 1.

So when Nov. 1 hit last weekend, Batten hung the bird feeder outside.

A few days later, around 1:30 a.m. Friday, the dogs in Batten's home began barking wildly. Batten and his wife, Toni, peeked out the French doors that lead from their bedroom to the porch. The couple flipped on the outdoor light, but the bear continued to eat.

"He's like, 'Excuse me, I'm having a little snack here,' " Batten said.

Batten loaded his pistol in case the bear broke a window, but eventually the bruin just sauntered off -- momentarily confused about how to navigate out of the home's fenced-in backyard.

"Took probably 10 minutes to find its way out," Batten said.

As for the bird feeder, Batten said, "It is absolutely the first thing that came into the house after the bear went away."

Battle said it's not just Eagle River where bears remain out of hibernation, though Fish and Game has received a flurry of reports from that area. Last week, it also received reports of a black bear sow and four cubs in Government Hill, Battle said.

He added, "Just because someone doesn't live in one of the areas mentioned doesn't mean it's safe for them to leave their trash unsecured or put out bird feeders."

As for Batten, he said he will wait until Thanksgiving to rehang his bird feeder outside.

"We thought it was kind of a good lesson," Batten said of the brief bear encounter. "I have to say my face was kind of red because I have been a spokesperson for a wildlife agency and should have known better."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.