Northwest Alaska is having a cabin break-in problem. But in a twist, the issue isn't troublemaking teenagers; it's curious bears looking to find their next treat.
"Dozens and dozens" of cabins all across the region have been ransacked by bears this summer, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Kotzebue area wildlife biologist Jim Dau.
From Selawik to Sheshalik, to Noorvik, Kiana and Ambler, residents are reporting their remote cabins have been raided by roaming brown bears. While bear break-ins in the region are not uncommon (last year there were about a dozen) Dau said he's hearing of more -- and more widespread -- than usual.
The uptick in break-ins appears to be related to several factors. Dau said anecdotally the brown bear population in Northwest Alaska appears to be rising. Berries aren't great in the region this year and Dau said that's forcing bears toward chum salmon-heavy waterways, including rivers and the coast. That's also where most people have subsistence use cabins.
Dau said bears are intelligent creatures. Once they break into one cabin with food, it becomes a learned behavior that's impossible to change.
And the damage to the cabins can be extensive.
"(The bears are) not going straight to kitchen. They're causing a lot of mayhem," said Marci Johnson, U.S. Park Service biologist based in Kotzebue. "It looks like a frat party occurred in there."
Most bears are breaking in by ripping off front doors or busting through boarded-up windows. Johnson said one bear managed to enter a cabin by punching a hole through a thin back wall. His loot? A can of Spam and some Tums.
Alex Whiting, environmental protection specialist with the Native Village of Kotzebue, said a trip last week along the coast from Sealing Point to Sheshalik found every single cabin along 50 miles of coastline had been raided by bears.
Whiting said everyone in the region prepares for bears to break into cabins, and often there are signs of bears scouting out cabins. But this year bears are going above and beyond.
Whiting said in every cabin he saw, windows were busted out -- and not just a single window to gain entry. In some places the bear -- Whiting suspects near Sheshalik it's only one -- went out of its way to break even small windows at the top of a cabin.
"There's no obvious, practical reason," Whiting said of the broken windows. "But maybe it's like when people pop those bubbles in the packing wrap. You don't know why you're doing this, but you're still doing it."
Johnson, Dau and other community leaders came together this week to try to figure out a solution to the problem of cabin-plundering bears. Many of the cabins are far from people's homes, sometimes up to 300 miles away. The gas to get to those places can be expensive. People might not have supplies to rebuild this season, or they can't afford to make return trips back.
Whiting said it could mean a tough year for those who survive off of subsistence. These cabins are not recreational cabins, he said; they're designed for people to live in while they fish, hunt or collect berries. With the residences destroyed, many will have to head home empty-handed.
Johnson is working to collect DNA from the bears to try to figure out how many are breaking into the cabins. She was preparing sampling kits Wednesday, complete with tweezers, to send out to people so they can collect leftover hair follicles from nuisance bears. Johnson also hopes the Park Service will have enough funding to be able to test the hair of break-in bears and others to see if the bears are eating human food. It might give researchers a better idea of why some of the bears are targeting cabins and others are not.
Johnson is also working to advise people on how to better prepare their cabins against bears. She's trying to set cabin owners up with "unwelcome" mats -- boards with nails pushed through them -- as well as instructing them about how to better secure windows, set up bear-proof fencing and properly store food away from the cabins.
"(The bears are) becoming a safety concern," she said. "We're just letting people know how to be safe."