Less tempting trash would minimize bear encounters

Greater effort needed in disposal, containment of garbage

U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist/Chugach Subsistence Program Lead Milo Burcham answers a question after his presentation on bears and bear safety at the Forest Service building in Cordova on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Bear attacks in Alaska have been minimal over the past 125 years, given all the human traffic, but they could still be fewer and far between in the Cordova area if there was less trash out to tempt them.

That was the message on July 10 to residents packed into the Forest Service building to learn more about bear safety. The session was prompted by a social media frenzy and frequent bear sightings in and around Cordova over the past few weeks.

“Given the populations, the tourists, the hikers, the hunters, berry pickers, all the people that we have in bear habitat in Alaska, over 125 years, there have been 300 attacks,” said wildlife biologist Milo Burcham, the Chugach Subsistence Program lead for the U.S. Forest Service. “I think that says a lot for the bears.”

Burcham delved into the history of bear incidents throughout the state and explained the differences in behavior between black and brown bears.

He also warned people about bringing their dogs in bear country, saying that it is an unknown variable.

“Hiking in a group might be the single greatest thing you can do to improve your odds of not having a negative interaction with a bear,” he said. “Fear is a normal response to threat, but too much fear short-circuits rational thought.”

Police Chief Mike Hicks talks about bears and bear safety at the Forest Service building in Cordova on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Robin Morrisett, Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks, and Charlotte Westing, the Prince William Sound area wildlife biologist with the Cordova office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game also spoke and answered questions.

“If you’re worried about bears in town, and really we all should be worried about bears in town, but what we really need to be worrying about is trash in town and we need to be calling people out on it,” Westing said. “Our community is really far from doing everything that we need to do to make this a place where we can coexist with bears.”

Westing noted that ADF&G has an electric fence available for poultry owners to borrow.

“It’s bad for tourism if people get hurt in this town; it’s bad for business if people get hurt in this town, it’s bad for all of us if people get hurt in this town,” she said. “And it’s bad for bears if we have to shoot bears when they get to a point we shouldn’t have let it get to.”

Cordova resident Kinsey Justa shared her own recent experience with a problem bear. “We kind of startled each other,” she said of the black bear that she encountered on the porch landing of the five-plex apartment where she lives.

Outside trash at the apartment is secured with a heavy lid and latch, but the bear continues to revisit the Spruce Street complex even after efforts to deter the bear with loud noises, throwing objects, revving engines and fireworks.

“It’s at a point where we have the fireworks on the steps,” she said.

“After the talk, I am more likely to use bear spray than a firearm,” she said, in response to Morrisett reminding people that shooting a bear may not actually kill it, leading to a potentially more dangerous situation.

“I’m shocked to hear that there aren’t stricter regulations for trash receptacles,” she said.

Charlotte Westing, the Prince William Sound area wildlife biologist with the Cordova office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game advises on bear safety resources, including informational pamphlets, during the bear safety talk at the Forest Service building in Cordova on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Taking action

Westing talked briefly about the black bear seen on Main Street.

“This bear that was downtown today is going to be shot within the next few days … because it has just gotten too comfortable being around people,” she said.

She says it has been in dumpsters and trash cans and that ADF&G was able to issue a citation in relation to the incident.

“I’m hoping that when people see there is a monetary consequence to a behavior and that word spreads, there can be some change,” she said.

Westing urged people to talk with their neighbors about being responsible for trash and practicing the correct method of disposal and containment.

“If you really care about having a very safe community we should all be working with our city council and our leadership in the community to increase the number of bear resistant lids on our dumpsters,” she said.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.