Building or buying bear-proof commercial dumpsters, drafting new code to regulate them and a push from some to kill bears who habitually feed at the landfill were among the topics discussed during Monday’s first Bear Task Force meeting.
Borough manager Debra Schnabel created the task force last fall after an increase in town bear activity. Dusty Trails tenant Larry Sweet was charged outside his apartment and bears also damaged people’s homes and other property. Haines Police chief Heath Scott said his department received more than 180 calls about bears in 2019, compared to 79 calls in 2018. Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Carl Koch and two colleagues traveled to town in October to monitor bear activity and assess bear attractants in town and at the landfill.
“I don’t want to compare it to a hurricane, but you couldn’t imagine how many dumpsters were flipped,” said Koch, who is also a task force member. “It was pretty untenable, obviously, for the community which is why we’re all here now.”
Task force members include Scott, Koch, Takshanuk Watershed Council executive director Derek Poinsette, Alaska State Parks ranger Travis Russel, Community Waste Solutions manager Craig Franke, biologist Shannon Donahue and Stuart DeWitt.
Schnabel said she hoped the task force would bring recommendations to the assembly by April 1.
This discussion began with bear activity at the landfill. Scott said he noticed an uptick in calls last fall, around the time the landfill cut off access to food waste by importing fill and burying exposed trash.
“In short, we did what we should have been doing all along,” Franke said.
Scott said the task force should consider code changes to regulate commercial dumpsters, and that, for the most part, residents weren’t violating existing code by creating bear attractants.
“People aren’t doing anything wrong but it’s no longer adequate for our environment,” Scott said.
Scott said the task force should recommend a strategy for how to kill bears that pose a threat to the public. “If we have bears that return consistently and go from a nuisance to a public safety hazard, I think we should have a strategy for how we euthanize that animal.”
Don Turner Jr., speaking during public comment, advocated for shooting bears that have become reliant on garbage at the dump. He said the issue had become a public safety concern. “If you guys don’t dispatch the bears that are dump bears now, we’re still going to have this problem,” Turner said. “We should not have to put up with bears breaking into our houses and tearing stuff up. To me, bears do not belong in town.”
DeWitt said some bears have gotten “so lazy they forgot how to catch a sockeye” and now rely on garbage as their sole food source. He said Fish and Game staff should kill bears that are known to have gotten into garbage over multiple years. “Say we get all our containers secure and for the most part the public is doing a good job, a lot of those bears, that’s all they know.”
Koch said that while bears will eat garbage if they know it’s a stable food source, biologists don’t adhere to the concept of “garbage bears,” bears that once accustomed to eating trash won’t return to natural food sources. He said Fish and Game will kill bears, but only on a case by case basis.
“Some of these bears are going to move on (from garbage). Some will not. That’s why we always take a case by case with a specific bear,” Koch said. “I would never convince my boss to shut the dump down, but before you do it, pop any bear that’s in there.”
Fish and Game wildlife research biologist Anthony Crupi told the CVN while there was a record sockeye run up the Chilkoot River, many of the bears weren’t around to fish during the pulse, and the poor pink and coho runs meant little food was available. He said poor fish runs caused increase bear activity throughout Southeast, not just Haines.
“Those animals found a reliable food source which was the landfill and unsecured dumpsters in (Haines,)” Crupi said.
Alaska state law allows a person to kill a bear in defense of life or property. That law excludes garbage.
“That’s what makes this situation so complicated,” Koch told the CVN after the meeting. “If people could kill every bear that went in garbage it would just be a perpetual problem. When you have trash out there it creates a niche of food. If it’s not secured the bears will just keep coming back to it.”
When asked about hazing methods, Scott said he was uncomfortable hazing bears with “deployables” such as bean bags or rubber bullets, or hazing without a fellow officer to kill the bear should hazing fail.
“I can purchase a 40-millimeter baton round that we use on people all the time in the big city when they don’t want to do what we tell them to do. You shoot a 40-millimeter at them and they start listening to you,” Scott said. “I imagine that is a better deployable round on a large animal if you want to change its behavior but even saying that, with a 40-millimeter I would want to have somebody deploying a less than lethal weapons system with a lethal weapons system.”
Schnabel asked the task force to consider how the borough regulates solid waste collection. “If we’re going to have self-haul, and people are going to be collecting and storing their trash in their homes and in their yards, then should we have any regulation about how that’s to take place?”
When asked after the meeting if she thinks the task force should bring back into public discussion a publicly subsidized waste collection system, Schnabel said “to me it seems inevitable that that’s where it needs to go.”
Turner said he doesn’t think Fish and Game is taking seriously enough that bears are habituated to the dump. He agrees the landfill should be better secured and said he’d like to help the borough make the dumpsters more bearproof. “I’m going to go look at them,” Turner told the CVN. “I like building stuff. People in general need to take more care of their garbage, too.”
Crupi is researching brown bear populations in the valley and has researched habituation in the Chilkoot corridor. While some residents believe Chilkoot bears have become habituated to people, Crupi said of the 12 he studied, only four became tolerant of people while they were fishing. Of the 10 bears he’s collared and tracked for the past 11 years, only two traveled to town.
For its next meeting, the task force asked Franke to list how many commercial dumpsters are located in town and Scott said he would provide more specific data on when and where bear calls were made to the police station. They agreed that Community Waste Solutions should aim to make 100 percent of its commercial dumpsters bearproof, and discussed the possibility of the borough subsidizing that effort.