Bear damages vehicles along Young Road
October 15, 2020
This month, an increasing number of residents have taken to locking cars as a preventative measure against the bear that has learned to open doors.
“Friday morning, Oct. 2, I started out the front door and stopped in my tracks and said aloud, ‘Why are three out of four car doors left wide open in the pouring rain?’ For a split second I thought the kids may have left the doors open,” Michael Ford said. He said his second thought was that he’d been robbed, but he quickly ruled that out as well.
“Nothing valuable to humans was missing. Binoculars, tools, an old cell phone, Beatles CDs, all untouched,” Ford said. It was then he noticed faint paw marks on the vehicle and realized his doors had been opened by a bear.
Other residents have similar reports of car doors left ajar by a burglar with an interest in gummy candies, sack lunches and fruit cakes, whose calling cards include muddy paw prints, scratch marks and destroyed upholstery. One homeowner reported damage to their vehicle in excess of $6,000, according to police chief Heath Scott.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) biologist Carl Koch said he first began hearing reports of a bear with the ability to open car doors on Oct. 2. Since then, Koch estimates more than a dozen vehicles have been broken into, including one where the bear locked itself inside and destroyed the car’s interior.
This year, police have received 386 bear-related calls. In the past two weeks alone, they have received roughly 40 calls. “A significant number of those were related to bears probing vehicles, bears damaging vehicles or bears probing houses,” Scott said.
At this point, little is known about the car-burglar bear, or bears, Koch said. Although, he said he’s heard at least one report that it’s a brown bear using its paws, as opposed to its teeth, to open doors.
Koch said while opening doors is an unusual behavior, it’s not unheard of in bears.
“In Juneau, it happens every few years. This summer, we had a case with a sow and a cub moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, opening car doors,” Koch said. The bears had broken into 50 to 70 cars by the time Fish and Game caught up with them.
“They’re clever critters. When they learn something like that, it’s problematic,” Koch said. “The (Haines) bear has learned that food rewards can be found in cars, so even though some people have cars that are clean, the bear thinks it will get a reward.” He said the more the bear finds food when it breaks into a vehicle, the more likely it is to repeat the behavior.
Once a bear learns to open car doors, it’s usually a death sentence for the animal.
“It’s pretty hard to relocate a bear like that. (In Juneau,) we eventually euthanized it. It’s very unfortunate,” Koch said.
Under law, residents are allowed to shoot bears in order to defend life or property.
“If a bear’s breaking into your car and destroying your car, that’s defense of life and property,” said wildlife trooper Colin Nemec, who also experienced a visit from the car-burglar bear. “It tried to open the doors on my cars, and there’s no garbage anywhere on my property. It actually ripped the door handle off my trooper truck. It’s zip-tied right now so I can open it,” Nemec said.
Koch said it may be hard to track down the car-burglar bear. Like the one in Juneau, the Haines bear has been operating at night and moving around a lot.
Both Koch and Nemec said they’ve been advising people to lock their car doors, a relatively uncommon practice in Haines, which traditionally has a low property crime rate.
“If the bear gets inside, it usually causes a lot more damage,” Koch said. He said residents should also remove bear attractants from their vehicles.
“The cleaner you can keep your vehicles, the better. Every time it gets a morsel, that’s more incentive to get into trucks,” he said.
This year, Haines has seen a dramatic increase in bear-caused property damage. So far, 22 bears have been shot in the Chilkat Valley outside of hunting season.