Anchorage, Alaska is a city laced with bear-baiting stations, so the city’s political leaders have decided to crack down on homeowners to solve the problem of constant conflicts between people and bears.
Homeowners, the Municipality of Anchorage contends, aren’t doing enough to keep bear out of their garbage, which is true. But the problem with bears in the state’s largest city is way more complex than residential garbage.
One can start with those bear-baiting stations, which technically aren’t called that but might as well be. Hundreds of the homeless now live in the city’s greenbelts surrounded by their bear-attracting food and garbage.
Still, almost 370 homeless camps were reported to have been wiped out and 218 tons of material, food and garbage cleaned up as part of a crackdown on life in the city’s green belts.
Whether the crackdown is working is hard to say. Take a stroll in the woods in Anchorage, and it remains easy to find homeless camps. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a former Democrat candidate for governor, has had to defend himself against charges from some fellow Democrats that he’s let the muni’s parks turn into a homeless hell.
Clean it up
“Each year, the number and size of encampments with semi-permanent
structures, fires, chop shops, and drug paraphernalia continue to grow,” nine of them charged in a May letter. “These encampments pose an existential threat to our community’s economic future. Based on our understanding of the options available, we feel the city has not used its full authority to clear camps by removing structures and other materials.”
The camps contain plenty of food and trash, both of which attract bears. A homeless Anchorage man in 2015 ended up in trouble with the law for spearing to death a young black bear that kept raiding his camp.
How often bears visit these camps to steal food is another unknown, but it is believed to happen with some regularity.
And yet the homeless are only part of the problem. Along with garbage, the homed have their own issues, starting with chickens.
The backyard chicken crazy long ago swept into Anchorage. Coops can be found all over town.
Not to mention dog food and bird seed, and the salmon some Anchorage residents butcher in their driveways or yards and on and on.
But wait, there’s more.
Added to all these manmade attractants pulling bears into the city are the salmon runs boosted by the joint efforts of the state and the muni. The state stocks the city’s Campbell and Ship creeks with salmon.
The muni is proud of having restored Chester Creek to allow pink salmon to spawn in midtown. Before restoration, a badly designed fish ladder allowed only a few hundred determined coho (silver) salmon to make it into the stream.
After removing the fish ladder and restoring the creek to a free-flowing state, pink salmon have also returned to the stream, and the population of salmon now numbers in the thousands.
Salmon attract bears, and Anchorage is on the edge of what are essentially two bear preserves – the half-million-acre Chugach State Park and the 64,000-acre Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER).
Great place for bears
Bears are plentiful in both areas. JBER abuts the suburb of Muldoon, where bears regularly stroll into people’s backyards. The Chugach Park is adjacent to the neighborhoods of the Anchorage Hillside, where bears are also common.
Once bears were heavily hunted in the Anchorage area. All indications are that the bear population at the time was artificially depressed.
The state’s DLP law allows anyone to kill a bear to protect herself or her property. The low kill average for DLP’s from 1981 to 1995 reflects a community in which few people encountered bears they judged threatening, and Anchorage area residents were far less tolerant of bears in the 1980s than they are now.
Despite the rise in tolerance since the state and the muni developed a Living With Wildlife in Anchorage plan in 2000, the number of DLP kills has only gone up. They hit a record 40 last year.
Living with Wildlife was designed “to enhance the quality of life for Anchorage’s residents and visitors, conserve and enhance a wide diversity of native wildlife and their habitats throughout the municipality, while allowing species to prosper in harmony with the community.”
All indications are that bears have prospered as a result. The maintenance of a high DLP kill rate for years now would indicate a population being “harvested” at a sustainable level.
The five-year average kill, counting 2018, stands at 23 dead bears per year, about six times the number in the 1990s. The maximum sustainable kill rate for black bears is believed to range from 12 percent in Interior Alaska to 15 percent in Prince William Sound.
Lots of bears
Suffice to say bears, most especially black bears, are common in Anchorage, and thus encounters are common. The more bears, the more encounters.
This is not to downplay the garbage problem. As someone who has talked to a few neighbors over the years about their garbage, and chased more than a few garbage-curious bears out of the neighborhood, I don’t want bears getting in the garbage in my neighborhood.
Because bears have really good memories, and once they find a food source, they will come back to check on it again and again and again. And if it’s a regular food source, they might start to hang around and get downright aggressive about their desire for “their” food.
The situation is much better if the bears wandering through the neighborhood just keep on wandering. It’s good that local politicians think the same.
If the assembly really wants to do something effective, it should make it against the law to leave your garbage on the street overnight in bear-heavy parts of Anchorage no matter what kind of can it is in.
Bears have really good noses. Leaving stinky garbage out all night will pull them into a neighborhood, too.
And then there’s this – “Study: Most Durangoans do not lock their bear-resistant trash cans.”
Only 40 percent of trash cans surveyed in residential areas were locked properly, the students reported.
Nobody has studied locking cans here, but I’ve tested enough lids when walking or biking around Anchorage to believe Alaskans have the same problem as Coloradans.
Often they fill the cans so full, the locks can’t lock. Other times they fill them full and pile more garbage on top, or put in so much garbage they can’t close the lid.
Rules, rules and more rules
The muni can write all the ordinances in the world requiring people to buy things, but the ordinances won’t work if the people misuse what they’ve bought.
But that’s sort of irrelevant, too. Think about this:
What if locking garbage cans actually worked, and as a result there were fewer bears killed in Anchorage every year?
The likely outcome is more bears in Anchorage, which only increases the odds of chance encounters, and those are the encounters which have in the past left people injured and tragically, on a couple occasions, dead.
No, I’m not suggesting Anchorage wipe out its bears. I like bears.
But there is a very good argument to be made that the way the system functions now is working. Area wildlife biologist Dave Battle might not want to hear this, but the policy that calls for actively removing bears that show a lack of fear of humans is a good policy.
Those bears are potentially dangerous. How they lost their fear of humans is largely irrelevant. The grizzly bear that killed 44-year-old Eagle River resident Michael Soltis last year in Eagle River was not known to have been feeding on garbage.
Both bears had demonstrably lost their fear of humans, and that is the prime public policy issue. Bears that cease to fear humans are dangerous bears. It doesn’t matter how they lose that fear.
Some might have been born that way. Bears, like humans and dogs and lots of other animals, have different personalities. Nature sets the framework. Nurture influences what develops around it.
Some bears might lose their fear of humans merely in the process of spending a lot of time around people. Some might simply suppress the fear because they think garbage more important than their fear.
Whatever the case, removing these bears from the population (and from the gene pool) before they hurt someone is good public policy. If the neighborhood dumb-dumb who lets a bear get in his garbage identifies a bear predisposed to losing its fear of humans, it might actually be a good thing.
Granted, I don’t want dumb-dumb in my neighborhood, and you shouldn’t either. It’s a good idea to politely go ask him not to leave the garbage out overnight, maybe even offer to put it out on the morning of garbage day if the neighbor has to go to work early or is going to be gone for days.
But I’m not sure it’s bad if dumb-dumb is in a neighborhood 10 blocks over because we’re all dealing with the same bears.
And if Battle shows up there and executes a bear because it has lost its fear of humans, well, I’m left with very mixed feelings. I feel sorry for the bear. I feel sorry for dumb-dumb’s neighbors. But I’m not sure that bear’s death is a bad thing.
In the bigger picture, it might be a good thing because there is a point at which communities can have too many bears just as there is a point at which it can have too few.