June 14, 2012 | Volume 42, No.24

Chilkoot bears hungry, unafraid

Two brown bears shot and killed under defense of life and property provisions have state officials reiterating the importance of securing potential food sources.

One of the two bears killed on private property in recent weeks has been identified as a two-and a-half-year-old male from a sow that frequents the Chilkoot River corridor. The other bear, a female, has not been identified or aged.

Cubs generally stay with mothers through two years, and are “kicked out” to fend for themselves in their third year when the sow prepares to mate again, said Fish and Game wildlife management biologist Ryan Scott.

“They’re like teenagers,” said Scott. “They don’t know where they fall in the pecking order, they are looking for a niche where they feel comfortable.” Young bears are in search of new food sources and often travel away from older, more dominant boars.

“They are looking for a place they feel comfortable, and for whatever reason, these two bears ended up in Haines proper,” said Scott. “They don’t have the life experience to know they should move on. If there’s not a food source keeping them in one spot, we have a pretty good chance of getting them to move on.”

Fish and Game Wildlife research biologist Anthony Crupi said bears around Chilkoot grow up feeding close to people and haven’t yet developed a natural fear of humans.

“Habituation is a process,” said Crupi. “Not all habituated bears are drawn to people for food, but they haven’t had negative stimuli from being close to people. They’ve learned that they can eat fish while someone takes a picture. That doesn’t mean they are going to break into a garage for trash until that process becomes rewarded.”

Crupi doesn’t believe the bear population is expanding in Haines and says the number of bears feeding at Chilkoot hasn’t increased in the 12 years since Fish and Game has studied the population. From June to mid-July, however, tends to be the hungriest time for them.

“The bears have used up their fat reserves, the protein content in the grasses has decreased and (the bears) are in search of higher quality food,” he said. That’s when bears will roam further from their typical territory.

Young bears are opportunists, but will move on if they don’t find a food source in a particular area. “Oftentimes, people are really excited to see a bear, but work hard to discourage them from being in your yard because eventually they’ll find something to keep them there,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife Trooper Ken VanSpronsen cautioned residents to keep their trash and other food sources secure by storing it inside a secure building or on a hanging deck that is only accessible from inside the home.

He recommends against storing trash in an outbuilding and against saving trash. “Some people like to save their trash for a week, but it will get pretty smelly and that’s what brings the bears in, “said VanSpronsen.

Other food sources that should be secured include animal feed and birdseed. Domestic animals should be protected in an enclosure with an electric fence. Hanging strips of fluttering plastic on the fence attracts attention so the bear will sniff the fence and get a shock, according to VanSpronsen. He recommends escalating tactics to drive a bear away from your home, including simultaneously making loud noises and hitting the bear with thrown objects or rubber bullets. Pepper spray also can be effective.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has two portable electric fences, and motion-activated noisemakers that are available for loan for up to two weeks. The devices are designed to deter bears and other wildlife.

Noisemakers, or “critter gitters,” include a motion-sensing device that triggers a loud alarm designed to drive away animal intruders and alert owners. installing electric fencing around their orchard, said Catotti, “we haven’t had any in here since.” Kip and Patty Kermoian have had similar success with electric fencing surrounding their chicken coop. “When (the fences) are up and turned on, we’ve never had a problem,” said Kip.

Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation President Pam Randles said a bear attraction nuisance ordinance adopted by the Haines Borough in 2010 has served as a successful educational tool for residents in Haines. “The fact that it exists makes a difference,” said Randles. “Haines is doing a much better job living alongside bears.”

She credits the educational efforts of the Haines Police Department. Haines Police Chief Gary Lowe says the department has issued one warning this year for unsecured garbage but says the department is making an effort to work with residents to track and deter bears that have wandered into the Haines town site. “We’re really encouraging people to call, so we can track these bears, and the areas that they’re in, and try to run them off.”

“It used to be the three-year olds were always shot,” said Randles. “We’re moving in a good direction.”