Outdoors, Science

Keeping Ahead of the Bears

By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News

 While bears hibernated in the mountains peacefully unaware, a gathering of humans met Tuesday evening in downtown Seward to discuss how to change their behavior and our own. Having made it through another wild summer of bear-human interactions, the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance assembled a diverse panel of experts to help pinpoint problem areas, and discuss potential solutions. But aside from the speakers, only about a dozen members of the public showed up.

 That’s to be expected, said Larry Lewis, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who is used to public interest peaking only after specific problems with wildlife arise. Bear/Human problems could be minimized with a more pro-active approach to bears, such as better garbage management, and better public education about living with bears, he said. Lewis’ sentiments were echoed by Dennis Smith, of Alaska Waste, and Seward Police Lt. Butch Tiner, both of whom spent the summer responding to calls about bears getting into people’s things.

 “I can almost track that bear,” said Smith, whose phone rings repeatedly as a bear or its family moves from one neighborhood to the next. Adult bears who find human food in a certain area teach their cubs to do the same—so the problem is repeated for generations, he said. “Yes, it was quite a summer!” Tiner said. Local police tallied 250 wildlife calls this summer compared to approximately 190-170 in the past few summers. They killed four particularly aggressive black bears that were not deterred by yelling, rubber bullets or bear spray, he said. The police department’s biggest challenge was bears visiting homes and apartments and four-plexes in the Dora Way area.  They had to deal with some owners who refused to purchase bear-resistant dumpsters, and tenants who left the dumpster lids or protective gates open, or piled garbage bags outside their containers. Police also stepped up the number of warnings followed by citations and fines for those who did not contain their garbage or attractants. But apparently the law is not clear on which party must provide bear-proof receptacles—the landlords or their tenants, Tiner said.

 In the past, bears moved away and problems ceased when certain problem areas in Kenai and Anchorage were blanketed with bear-resistant containers, or when fences were erected around Moose Pass and Cooper Landing’s garbage sites, Lewis said. But when the garbage became available again—the bears soon returned. One member of the public noted that when the Seward dump became a waste transfer facility, problems with bear ended there. But that’s perhaps why more bears began moving into town in search of food, he said.

 Physically moving garbage-seeking bears to another area rather than killing them doesn’t work, as they simply return, Smith added. One bear that ADF&G darted, tagged, and transported 52 miles away at Noon Saturday returned home and was shot by 6 a.m. Monday, having gotten into someone’s chicken coop, Smith said. He wished that his own GPS system was as good as that bears’. 

 Opinions differed about the advisability of allowing the hunting of bears within city limits to curtail their numbers. Some felt it would be reckless, while others felt experts with the right training might be careful. The lack of bear hunting these days might account for their higher numbers, someone suggested. Another said some feel that brown bears in outlying areas may be forcing the smaller black bears toward residential areas. One effort to allow bear hunting in the city failed at the council level last year, and some fear a pubic outcry would result were the idea to come back.

 RBCA would like to obtain another 250 bear-resistant garbage cans, (at $70-$80,000) to make available to the public. But thus far, they have been unable to locate another government grant to fund them, said RBCA’s Matt Gray. The group ran out after providing 650 BR garbage cans to Seward residents at a quarter of their actual cost; placing 25 bear-BR dumpster lids in high problem areas; and having the city put 11 metal garbage containers on the waterfront and other public locations, under a two-year grant program. Gray wonders whether the cruise ship industry, or other private businesses or charitable organizations may be willing to help fund that effort.  

 Alaska Waste LLC, our area’s local trash collection and transfer facility operator, has provided bear-resistant dumpsters and garbage cans for rent, but has also run out. Their dumpsters account for less than a quarter of those currently in use in Seward. But the company would like to do more in that area, Smith said. Last summer it cost customers about $57 per month to rent a dumpster with a bear-proof lid, ($1,000 apiece), and Smith estimates they could also supply regular bear- resistant garbage cans to users at about $8 more per month. (They cost about $200 each). He said they used to be bulky and to have manual closures that were difficult to use—but they are gradually improving.

 Alaska Waste begins a one-year contract with the City beginning in January, 2011, but will have to compete with other waste management providers in a competitive RFP process if it is to continue here for the next 10 years, Smith said. It would help if residents tell the city that they would like its RFP bids to include providing bear-resistant container services. A long-term commitment with Seward would make it feasible for companies such as Alaska Waste to purchase the needed containers, and make the costly adaptations for its trucks, Smith said.

 Gary Fandrei, the director of Cook Inlet Regional Aquaculture Association addressed criticism that the fish weir it operates at Bear Lake subdivision outside of town was attracting bears to the area. That was where a local boy was standing when he was recently attacked by a brown bear with cubs at his school bus stop. The boy required stitches after a bear stood on him, and ripped at his backpack as he lay on the ground playing dead. The incident took place several weeks after weir activities had already closed for the season, and there was very little evidence of fish in the nearby creek afterwards, Fandrei said. As he understood it, the bears had been eating berries, not fish, he said.

 But, he admitted, there was a distinct bear problem at the weir during the summers of 2005-2008 when unexpectedly large fish returns totaled 40-45,000. CIAA generally has much lower salmon production, and has begun stocking some of those the hatchery raises in Resurrection Bay instead. CIAA does its best to keep track of fish runs at the weir, and will open the doors for late returning fish or when they pool up, he said.

 The Russian River, where approximately 80 thousand people fish next to bears each year, also has its share of interactions, which increased dramatically in the ‘90s, and then worsened through the 2000s, said John Eavis, a US Forest Service recreation staff officer. In the summer of 2008, authorities had to kill eight DLP bears along the river because of human/ bear conflicts, he said. Last summer saw few bear conflicts at the Russian River, probably due to low salmon returns, and because a number of the area’s bears were killed in Cooper Landing before the fishing season started.

 The forest service installed bear resistant trash cans and food lockers at the campground, and has increased bear patrols. It also reduced the number of fish-cleaning tables provided along the river banks, hoping to discourage accumulated fish waste–and new regulations were implemented for carrying out salmon whole. But people continue to throw fish carcasses in the river. The Russian River Inter-Agency Coordination Group will hold meetings in March and May to discuss with the public ways to further minimize bear/fish waste problems there.

 The Kenai Fjords National Park has also has taken a pro-active approach to bears, said National Park Service ecologist Laura Phillips. The park provides the bear resistant dumpsters and food lockers, and every staff member or volunteer must receive three hours of bear-related training. The park at Exit Glacier relies heavily on the reporting of bear sightings to keep track of them, and to assure that the public and interpreters are aware that they have been in a certain area, Phillips said.  She is part of a special bear unit on hand to provide aversive conditioning to bears, which takes a great amount of time and effort, she said.

 During the lengthy discussion, empathy also was expressed for the bears, which after all are just being—bears. An apartment dweller on Dora Way expressed heartfelt guilt about her bothersome neighborhood bear that was shot by the police. Dennis Smith, of Alaska Waste understood.

 A certain bear outside their home became so frightening that his wife finally told him that he needed to “terminate that bear,” Smith said. They way he views it though, is he might as well go pave the woods, or move somewhere else. The presence of wildlife is why people choose to live here, he said. “That bear is what makes Seward special to me.”




  1. Im Glad to see this discussion happening. I live in the Afognak acres area and had most of the same bears from Dora Way just over the hill from us. I had three encounteres with bears last summer two of them in my yard. I have Bear Resistant trash cans and have a nothing in the yard that might attract bears. One encounter left me using my bike as a shield between a young mother and two cubs. Unfortunatey these young cubs are getting taught that this is where food comes from. I also built a 6′ fence to keep my dogs safe and the bears away from my BBQ. The first thing we need to do is change our behavior. If we ticket more aggressivly those that entice bears with trash and irresponsible houekeeping, the less this is a problem. The monies generated from those fines can help pay for more bear resistant trash recepticles. Even if these containers arent available now, we can still have some common sense with whatever containers we do have. I wish I could have made the meeting and I am sure some of this has been discussed. Unfortunately for the near future these current problem bears have the taste for Garbage and nothing is going to change thiers or thier offsprings behavior until they have been dispatched. I thik we need to have a bear task force of biologists, Local Hunters, and Police to take care of this.

  2. In city limits resident

    I have to pay high refuse fees, even if I refuse service. The city should provide bear resistant cans.

  3. We take our garbage to our work dumpster and yet have to pay for services at our home. With no garbage or other attractions, we have bears traveling thru out property on a daily basis. There is a ‘trail’ that is used to move from town towards the schools northward. Many afternoons about 3-4pm a mother and the 2 cubs came up our drive way headed north. A few times I called the schools to let them know bears were traveling their direction and they announced it to the students. As much as I’d like to see the bears left alone, our students are vulnerable to encounters. Those cubs will be older and be ‘taught’ to travel the paths used as cubs. I fear that we are only creating greater dangers to our young people, and the bears, by not addressing the problems sooner. A good question is, who do you call?

    The bear watch on SCN was great, it sure put the reports together in one place to track some of the activities for us all to check in and read. A task force to assess when and where to address each bear problem sounds like a good idea. It sure was a record year for bears in town and it was a constant worry having students walking the same areas at the same time as the bears or to leave a pet on a tie out during the day.

  4. As long as bears are out for extra safety the gate to the grade school play ground should be kept shut.

  5. Is there a plan to get more bear proof cans? I just moved into town and need/want a large bear proof can and can’t get one. I know there are other people who would buy and use the cans if they could get them.