Dumpster diving bear killed, prompting more safety talks

Community members write urging to city council to take action

A black bear tries to get into a dumpster after recent modifications had been made near the Copper River Seafoods processing plant. Photo courtesy of Copper River Seafoods

At 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 a barrel trap, set by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was placed near a dumpster at the Copper River Seafoods processing plant in Cordova. By 5 p.m. a black bear was trapped, and a crowd had gathered. People began filming, taking photographs and surrounding the cowering bear. Within the hour, the bear was fatally shot by Alaska Wildlife Troopers.

“To me, it’s like baiting bears into town, expecting them not to fall for it and then killing them because of it,” Charlotte Westing, Prince William Sound area wildlife biologist, with the Cordova office of ADF&G, said. “People think if we kill bears, we will solve the problem … it’s not sustainable.

“We live in a community with two species of bears and we are decades behind other bear saturated communities in our prevention measures,” she said.

The sow, who weighed roughly 200 pounds, was killed after it continued to seek food from the dumpster. The dumpster was modified with a metal bar to prevent the plastic lid from being opened. The dumpster was secured after the bear found it as a food source, Westing said.

Many people have suggested relocation of bears as a solution, as was done in the ’80s.

A brown bear that was relocated to Montague Island, nearly 70 miles from Cordova, found its way back to town, she said, adding that relocation causes stress for the animal, is expensive and simply prolongs death.

“We live on the edge of wild places … they’re gonna be there … they’re biologically programmed to be bold, to pursue food,” Westing said. “We’re behind the eight ball in this town.”

Dumpsters in outlying areas such as the camper park on Whitshed Road, Alaska Wilderness Outfitters, and most recently, Copper River Seafoods, have been secured with bear resistant lids. Costs range from $500 to $1,000 each, depending on the type of lid, and it’s money the city doesn’t have, she said.

The city’s Refuse Department is working on getting more bear-proof lids and finding a different style of lid, after receiving complaints that the new lids were too difficult to open, said Aaron Muma, department supervisor.

Modifying dumpsters is a short-term solution which can also prevent dumpsters from being serviced. The modification must be manually removed in order for the truck to be able to dump it. Bears will learn that plastic lids can be pushed into the dumpster, said Muma. Current modifications only prevent lids from being lifted up rather than pushed down. The refuse department should be contacted before any modifications are made to dumpsters, he said.

Growing concern

Photos and descriptions of bear sightings flooded Facebook over the past two weeks, after a brief lull in such posts.

Rachel Kallander said she found bear postings frequently on her newsfeed, sparking concern for family, friends and children of Cordova.

“I don’t know what the answer is; I just think collaborating to be proactive before something does happen would also help to calm people’s fears,” she said.

Kallander often travels outside of Cordova for work, and keeps updated on bear sightings in town through Facebook, which prompted her to write a letter to city council members.

“I just start thinking about all the little kids running around Cordova,” she said. “My fear about not being proactive is that then someone will be seriously hurt.”

Kallander suggests that residents take note of other Alaskan communities that have come up with proactive strategies to manage bear incidents.

“There are precedents for this type of action that can be referenced in other communities who have dealt with violent or threatening bear populations, wolf populations, et cetera,” she wrote.

In 2011, the city of Valdez initiated a self-funded bear proof dumpster program. After testing different styles of bear proof dumpster lids, they found one that worked well overall, including public use and for truck service pick up.

The city then began purchasing them and once installed, the lids were put on a replacement cycle. A bear proof lid that has no damage has a lifecycle of up to 10 years, said Allie Ferko, public information officer for Valdez. Every year, 20 bear-proof lids are replaced, most often due to rust damage that makes lids ineffective. The yearly budget for the replacement project is $34,000, Ferko said.

There are approximately 270 dumpsters in Valdez with bear-proof lids, while approximately 30 dumpsters have plastic lids, a decision based on what the dumpster is used for, Ferko said. Dumpsters used to store waste that attracts bears are fitted with bear proof lids.

“There’s a big public education component to it,” Ferko said. Residents need to be taught how to use the lids and latch them properly, to ensure that they are used effectively.

Westing also spoke about communities with committees or boards formed to engage residents in coming up with solutions.

Kallander and others wrote letters this week urging city council to take action.

“This request is not made lightly, as I personally know residents of Eagle River and other communities who have suffered the loss of human life due to black bears this summer and in recent years,” she said. “The residents of Cordova deserve for this issue to be taken seriously before a local adult, or worse a child, is seriously injured.”

“I understand this is also a people problem and a trash problem,” Diane Riedel said in her letter to the city council, “but I value children safety over the bears’ lives, especially directly in the middle of town.

“While dropping my three-year-old off at daycare today, I was told they had a bear on the playground (Aug. 7) and had to take all the kids into the school. There was a posted sign up at the playground that a bear had been there on Aug. 3…a sign is not enough for a bear hanging around at the playground.”

Councilmember Melina Meyer asked City Manager Alan Lanning for an update regarding the concerns expressed by the public in these letters during the Aug. 15 city council meeting.

“We have looked at and we’re examining how we pick up our trash, where our refuse is dumped, all of those things,” Lanning said. “We have pricing on bear proof containers that any individual in town, if they wanted to purchase one, they could do so, whether it’s through us or somebody else.”

Lanning also mentioned the potential for collection points, where individual containers could be dumped into a larger bear proof container.

“I’ve lived in bear country for many, many years and the solution in many of those communities was an ordinance that required everyone, including the city, to have bear proof containers, period…I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “Much of this is about money.”

A dumpster near the Copper River Seafoods processing plant was recently modified after a black bear had been in and around the dumpster in search for food.
Photo courtesy of Copper River Seafoods

What’s next?

While Westing acknowledges the lack of funding available to replace the plastic lids, she notes that there could be greater expenses on the city from incidents with bears, “I say dumpster lids are cheaper than lawsuits and officer time.”

Meanwhile Westing said one possible solution is for the city to hire a local welder to design a dumpster lid modification that would be effective and be easier for people to use.

“If we can get dumpster lids made in bulk by a local person … that would be ideal,” she said.

Westing also reminded residents that ADF&G has an electric fence available to loan for up to two weeks for people who own chickens.

“Every bear that has been shot (by a member of the public) this year was over chickens,” she said.

Westing encourages people to talk with her and ask questions, write letters to city council or to ADF&G and to also engage in greater community discussion.

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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.