Finn McMahon practices using bear spray during the Living With Bears presentation at the public library on Friday, April 28, 2023. Residents also got to pet Karelian bear dogs.

Haines police say they haven’t yet gotten any calls about bears yet this season. But several residents have posted photos of paw prints or other bear sign on social media – so it’s clear they’re waking up. 

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife management biologist Carl Koch said this is the time of year to expect bears to be awake and hungry. 

“They’re coming out looking for food, hooligan, salmon, eating emerging vegetation and if there’s nothing else around they’ll work their way up the mountain and then they’ll come back down for salmon and things like that,” he said.  

Koch, who is based in Juneau, said residents there have already had some run-ins with bears during a patch of recent sunny weather when people in town were leaving their doors and windows open. 

“In this case, people in Juneau literally left the door wide open,” Koch said. “They were going back and forth, cleaning out their vehicles, and they realized a sow and a yearling – two bears, a big bear and a little bear – had entered the house. They had to shout or something to get them outside, but they did get food from a lunchbox or something on the porch.” 

In that case, because the bears were rewarded – Koch said he told the people in the home to expect the bears to come back. 

“Hopefully they don’t escalate things now that they’ve had food from a building,” he said. 

He’s trying a variation on a “unwelcome mat” this year – that’s generally a piece of plywood with nails in it that people put in front of their doors, windows or other areas – to keep bears from getting inside. 

“A lot of folks in Haines will use a nailboard,” he said. “In at least one case, the bear got underneath it and flipped it over.” 

So, Koch is trying a rubber mat with a piece of metal on top that shocks a bear when they step on it. 

But the ideal solution to keeping bears away is minimizing the number of attractants – livestock, garbage, bird-feeders – anything a bear might eat. 

“Like in my neighborhood, somebody just the other day was like ‘Oh, the bear was eating the crackers I left for the bird,’” Koch said.

When bears get a food reward like that, they’re likely to keep coming back to that spot. 

Koch said another thing they often see is people leaving coolers and freezers on their porches – he suggests cleaning them with bleach if they’re going to be stored outside. 

“Freezers on porches during the time of year when bears are out is a bad idea,” he said. 

One other thing to keep an eye on that has been happening more and more in Southeast Alaska is bears opening car doors. 

“Last year we had bears opening car doors like crazy in Haines,” Koch said. 

He said they recommend people keep their car cleaned and doors locked, though there are debates around the best way to avoid bear damage to a vehicle. 

It’s likely that Haines still has fewer bears than it did in 2020 when a record number of brown bears were killed both by law enforcement and members of the public. 

“Our guess was that 16-20 percent of the brown bear population was removed, including 15 females, which is problematic,” he said. 

But Koch said there are signs that the population is starting to recover. 

Fish and Game research coordinator Anthony Crupi said staff are still working on a population estimate of the bears in the Haines area. While the full results of that survey will not be available for weeks, Crupi said so far they’ve seen several bears in the alpine, a few down along the rivers and three radio-collared females – suspected to have cubs – still in their dens on May 2. 

“This is all typical of the denning emergence activity patterns I have observed over the past 16 years collaring bears in the Haines area,” Crupi wrote in an email. 

Koch said staff from Fish and Game will be in town in early June to teach a few classes on bear safety, using deterrents like electric fences, and to give people a chance to learn how to use bear spray.

“If everyone does their part it makes the neighborhood safer,” he said. 

Haines mayor Tom Morphet is working to get a group together to walk around town and talk to people about why their trash cans are not bear-proofed. Then, after people have been given the chance to address it – start enforcing the borough’s law against unsecured bear attractants. Morphet said he doesn’t think that law is enforced often. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever written a ticket,” Morphet said.