Overly simplified


Why locking garbage cans might not work/Craig Medred photo

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.

Exactly how many is unknown. The muni estimated more than 1,000 living on the streets last summer, but how many had camps in the woods is not known.

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.

The cub, estimated to be about a year and a half old, and an older bear thought to be its mother had been at the campsite for days stealing food, it was reported at the time.

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.

“Chickens and rabbits kept in outside pens are easy and attractive prey (for bears),” notes the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. So is compost, another urban trend. 

Bear treats

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.

Between 1981 and 1995, according to Fish and Game data, an average of one grizzly and three black bears were killed within the Municipality of Anchorage in defense of life and property (DLP).

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.

The state estimated 250 black bears and 60 grizzly bears in the Anchorage area in 1999. They now say they’re not sure of the number.

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.

But you have to be pretty naive to think that requiring “bear resistant containers,” as some assembly members want to do, is going to solve Anchorage’s bear problems.

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.”

The story is from the Durango Herald in Colorado where students from Fort Lewis College actually went and checked on garbage cans left out on the street at night.

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. 

The same is true for the black bear that killed 16-year-old Patrick Cooper on Bird Ridge just east of the city in 2017.

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.

















23 replies »

  1. If the damned bears don’t wanna be shot; let them pay property taxes. Until then it’s the three S’s for them.

  2. Fear and greed – the only 2 emotions on Wall Street – is a good way to frame how we and bears behave.
    The dominant bears get the best territories. Lower bears can sneak some food from the dominant bear’s territory at the risk of being killed. If bears can find food in people country without risk of being killed, the bear population in people country will grow.
    From the people perspective, it is also about fear and greed. Allowing bears in people country will result in fatal and non-fatal maulings, but the greed factor, in the form of seeing bears in unnatural settings, causes some people to override fear. Personally I think accommodating bears in people country is a very bad idea. Unnatural. Not much different than training them to ride bicycles for the circus. I don’t see the upside.

  3. Juneau tackled its garbage bear problem over 20 years ago. We were killing as many as twenty bears a year, trying to capture and transport dozens, and dealing with far too many human-bear altercations. Juneau at that time had nothing like the homeless problem Anchorage has today but it has far more ravens and far more fish in the local streams and along the shore of Gastineau Channel and other salt water. Of course it was some sort of authoritarian plot and women, children, and “the most vulnerable among us” were going to be hardest hit. But we did it.

    The biggest, most important, and most controversial change was prohibiting keeping your garbage outside and only allowing the can(s) out after 4 AM on your pickup day. Especially people without garages howled about that but they adapted, though it took some fines to get the slow learners to adapt. We didn’t require individuals to have bear proof containers, but all public outdoor containers were replaced with bear proof containers. No loose bags of garbage were allowed. Containers had to be positively closed either by the container’s own locking device or with a bungee cord; that was mostly to keep ravens from opening the lid and strewing the garbage around, which they are terrible about and really good at. I you put out two cans, if they were close enough together that a raven could stand on one and reach the other, the raven would get one or both of them open if all they had was snap on lids.

    All dumpsters had to have lids and had to be kept closed and no bagged or loose garbage was allowed around them. It took some apartment dwellers awhile to adapt and there were some scenes out of “Alice’s Restaurant” as the CBJ tried to find out whose garbage was piled outside the dumpster. A lot of attention was paid to restaurants and grocery stores but they quickly adapted.

    It took some controversy and some fines but in a couple of years Juneau had a much reduced urban bear population and we weren’t having to kill them in alarming number any more. We had long since given up on trying to transport them; they just come back. It didn’t work perfectly and there is still the occasional “urban bear,” but it quickly became much less of an issue and no really dramatic measures were required no were all residents forced to bear the cost of bear proof containers.

    Frankly, I was appalled when I moved back to Anchorage in ’10 at the mess on garbage pickup day; there was trash everywhere when I lived in what had once been a good neighborhood in East Anchorage. I wasn’t aware of how much some parts of Anchorage had changed since I moved to Juneau in ’83. I moved quickly and where I live now isn’t as bad, but a majority of the garbage cans go out the night before and some stay outside. Several neighbors have chickens and compost heaps into which they put kitchen waste. This in a neighborhood where a grizzly had to be shot a few years ago because it was guarding a moose calf kill in a backyard only a couple hundred yards from my house and where black bear sightings are a matter of routine.

  4. As I read more bear stories, it makes me think of human interaction with “wildlife” and our lack of awareness that we all coexist in this ecosystem together.
    I am reminded of the classic work of John Mcfee titled “The Control of Nature”…
    It appears that law enforcement learns of human interaction with wildlife by cops “trolling” social media looking for pictures with bears, etc.
    In Oregon a bear was recently shot and killed (by law enforcement) just because folks took “selfies” with the young bear along side a roadway?
    “Law enforcement became aware of interactions between the bear and humans after some individuals took ‘selfie’ photographs of themselves and the bear and posted them on social media”…
    This practice of killing any bear “on the loose” in society goes on from the woods of PA all the way to the “concrete jungle” of ANC?
    “The Newberry, Michigan, roadside zoo makes a profit by encouraging people to take photos with bear cubs. One such bear, 2-year-old Sophie, was shot and killed just this past April after she had scaled one of the facility’s fences and escaped.”
    Why is it that “Man” more than any other species on earth must “Control Nature”?
    Is it for “His” own inherit weakness on this earth?
    A lack of Compassion for other living beings seems to be driving our culture to a society void of Empathy.

    • Genesis 1:26
      Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

  5. Interesting divergence in opinion about what to control by the State. On the one hand, they line Minnesota and New Seward with fences to control moose. On the other, they only shoot human-habituated bears when they become a physical threat. Cheers –

  6. Good write-up Craig.. As for the homeless, buy them a oneway ticket to California where they are welcome with with open arms and can poop on the sidewalks. Will be much cheaper. Can’t beat the weather either. Sadly, to many Westcoast liberals have moved into Anchorage and equate their cuddle bears to real bears. They always leave a trail of mismanagement and stupid policies wherever they go.
    Some locking trashcans do work to discourage bears but, not eliminate the smell. Like any animal who reproduces, their footprint swells naturally that they need to be culled in certain areas. Guess certain groups are ok to cull humans but not bears?

    • Bryan,
      Your comment:
      “They always leave a trail of mismanagement and stupid policies wherever they go.”
      Reminds me a lot of the Trump administration and his sprawling ICE detention centers along the southern border.
      When was the last time in U.S. history that a member of Congress called detention centers in the U.S. “Concentration Camps”?
      Here is a recent video of AOC stating she will not apologize for her latest comments on the current policies in practice that separate children from their families on our southern border.

      • Steve, that was Obama who put “Concentration” camps along the southern border and detained children which was the right thing to do to protect them..Think about it, kids are raped, molested, and sent across the border with total strangers, gang members to get across the border – WITHOUT THEIR REAL PARENTS SO OF COURSE THEY ARE GOING TO BE DETAINED UNTIL WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHO THEY ARE AND WHERE THEIR REAL PARENTS ARE.
        It was a Democrat who put American Japanese citizens in “Concentration” camps during WW2.
        As for AOC, can a Democrat bartender get anymore stupid or embarrassing? I mean really, to quote that bag of rocks?? To think that DOLT is a Congress woman.

      • I guess now the Dyed in the Wool Red Guard will re-write history; and Ellis Island will be a horrible example of Capitalist Concentration Camps. The F’ing idiocy never ends with these mental midgets.

      • Bryan,
        Yes, you are correct Obama built the “G bay” type camps in old warehouses in Texas, but under Trump the detention rate has increased nearly 300 percent.
        “Arrests at the U.S. southern border surpassed 144,000 last month, the highest level in 13 years, and Trump, lashing out, has started severing or freezing aid to the Northern Triangle countries as punishment.”
        “The chain-link fence holding pens of the Border Patrol’s largest processing center was stuffed with more than 2,000 people when the first ladies of the Northern Triangle arrived here Thursday for a visit.”

      • Washington Post is Bezo’s personal Fake News Blog; not a legitimate source for anything.

      • Agree! When you quote the Washington Post you might as well quote CNN. Leftist propagandist rags.

      • A tweet that went viral showing the Trump administration “torture” of children inside Border Patrol camps was actually from August 2015 when Obama was in office.

        Actress Nancy Lee Grahn, who is verified on Twitter, tweeted, “Trump administration is forcing children 2 sleep on cement floor with an aluminum blanket & lights on all night. Sarah Fabian from DOJ argued in court that it was good enough & soap was unnecessary. Companies making 750 a kid a day to torture them.”
        However, the photos which illustrated the tweet, taken inside a Border Patrol facility in Tucson, Arizona, are from August 2015.

      • It is great to hear the male chauvinist opinions that have no respect for women….NOT!
        You can bash AOC, discredit all first hand accounts of abuse (of children) at detention facilities and say it all took place during Obama’s watch….but that is also NOT true!
        “The U.S. government has removed hundreds of migrant children from a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, following reports of unsanitary living conditions and inadequate food and water…
        Last week, a pediatrician visited a Texas detention facility for migrant children and says what she saw could be compared to “torture facilities.”

      • Steve, every time AOC opens her mouth she shows what an idiot she is. An embarrassment to the position. As for the illegal kids at the border, well, their parents had a choice and that choice was to give their kids to strangers to get molested, die in the desert, or end up in a US Dentention Center. They better be glad they didn’t end up in a Mexican or Salvadorian Dentention Center. Right, Steve? So, would you say the parents made a smart choice sending their illegal kid on such a dangerous journey? See Steve, it isn’t Trump’s fault afterall.

      • Bryan,
        There is a good opinion piece today from Michael Gerson who was a top aide to G.W. Bush until 2006.
        He makes a valid point that Trump is inviting Loyalists like yourself to live in his seperate reality.
        Gerson writes:
        “He seems immune to empathy for a minority facing prejudice, or a refugee fleeing from oppression, or a migrant child separated from his or her parents…
        Trump is not only speaking a series of lies. He is inviting millions of loyalists to live in a political reality conjured by his deceptions. Any news critical of him is fake.”

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