Commentary: Making bears one less thing to worry about

A black bear in Cordova in 2018, a year when bears has an especially high presence in town. Photo courtesy of Milo Burcham

I don’t need to tell anyone that tensions have been high in Cordova and, really, everywhere lately. Nature, however, carries on all its natural processes largely unchanged. Shorebirds and hummingbirds came and mostly went, moose are having calves, and bears emerged from dens. Now, bears are being bears, looking for food as always, and a few have been seen around town already. Wild foods draw bears close to neighborhoods, but trash and other attractants keep them there. Leaving trash accessible to bears is like leaving cookies on your counter and trusting your dog to leave them alone while you’re gone. Most dogs can’t resist the temptation, just like bears can’t resist easy meals. Leaving out garbage and other attractants is bad for bears and people alike.

As with previous years, the Cordova Police Department, the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are collaborating on how bear-related calls are handled. Our strategy is proactive — and it focuses on trash.

When bears find food around homes, they often hang around looking for more and can become very comfortable around people. It’s important to realize though that just because a bear does not immediately run when it sees a human does not mean it’s a safety threat. Bears are very curious and are often observing us while hidden from our sight. Bears will breeze through town and some will inherently not observe our invisible property lines (since most of us don’t have fences). Fed bears, however, are hazardous to people, pets and property, and usually end up being killed.

If you encounter a bear you believe presents a public safety threat, please call CPD or AWT. Keep in mind, though, that the mere presence of a bear does not constitute a public safety concern. If you see a bear that is not a public safety concern but believe ADFG should know about it (perhaps it’s getting into trash or other improperly stored bear attractants), please give us a call. As neighbors, we need to acknowledge that our choices affect the safety of others that live around us. Uncontained poultry or improperly stored trash is bad for the neighborhood, not just the individual property owner.

Law enforcement responding to bear calls involving improperly stored trash or other attractants will issue citations for “intentionally or negligently” feeding bears. This can mean a $310 fine. Also, remember that in most cases, officers will not haze bears as that just prolongs the inevitable and may increase the hazard. Trapping and relocation is not an option as bears are amazingly good at finding their way back. By the time a bear becomes a public safety risk it has drawn a death sentence. How can we best avoid risks to public safety and needlessly killing bears? Prevention.

Following are some reminders on how to handle bear attractants to keep bears away from our homes:

  • Garbage: Securely store all garbage inside a building or shed or in a bear-resistant container. Do not put trash out on the street until the morning of garbage pickup. Trash can be taken to the baler during business hours (Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.). Public use dumpsters are also available at times.
  • Fish waste: Use designated fish cleaning stations and dispose of waste in flowing or ocean water. Do not leave it high and dry! At home, separate and freeze fish waste or other stinky bits of garbage until garbage day.
  • Birdseed: Bears love birdseed. Take down all birdfeeders April 15 through Oct. 31 and clean up spilled seed too.
  • Grills: Clean grills by burning off residual food and scrap with a wire brush after cooking. Empty the grease trap or bring it inside after each use. If possible, store your grill inside a garage or shed when not in use.
  • Fish smokers: Smoking fish attracts bears. Do not leave your smoker unattended. Consider using an electric fence.
  • Pet food: If you feed your pets outside, be sure to bring in any uneaten food inside when they are done. Failing to do so may result in a dogfight with a brown bear. Bears love dog food even more than dogs do!
  • Livestock: Bears do occasionally kill and eat livestock, especially ducks, chickens and rabbits. Use an electric fence around livestock enclosures to keep bears out. Getting zapped by an electric fence won’t kill the bear, but it will be a shocking experience the bear won’t want to repeat!
  • Livestock food: Bears will eat anything you feed your livestock. Secure all feed inside a building or in a bear-resistant container.

If all measures above are taken, human-bear conflicts can be dramatically reduced. State law allows bears to be killed in defense of life or property, if you did not provoke an attack or cause a problem by negligently leaving human or pet food or garbage in a manner that attracts bears and if you have done everything else you can to protect your life and property. If possible, call AWT or CPD first. If officers are unable to respond and lethal means are the only alternative, shoot to kill; a wounded bear only aggravates an already dangerous situation. Also, remember that shooting in an urban setting is risky and illegal unless the situation is truly dire. Remember, if a bear has been attracted to your home or camp by improperly stored food or garbage, it cannot be legally killed. Illegally killing a bear could mean a citation for discharging a firearm within city limits or a citation for taking a bear without a harvest ticket, and a citation for feeding wildlife.

When a bear is killed in defense of life or property, call AWT or ADFG and report it immediately. All bears killed in defense of life or property must be skinned with claws and evidence of sex attached and the skull removed and then immediately turned over to ADFG.

If you see a bear getting into trash or other bear attractants, call ADFG at 907-424-3215. ADFG has an electric fence that can be used by the public. Families all over the Midwest use electric fences without substantial risk to children. If you’re curious about what an electric fence can do in your specific situation, please call us. ACE hardware can order bear-resistant trash cans and hopes to have some in stock soon. If you’re in the market for a new can, call them for more information. If you have ideas about how we can keep this community clean and safe for people and bears, please call and share your ideas. The city refuse department and ADFG are currently exploring how Cordova can improve efforts on this important issue.

We make decisions based on what is considerate to others. This is true now, more than any other time. Making choices in this way will also influence our behavior regarding keeping bears and our community safe. Being bear aware is just another way to show our neighbors how much we care.

For more information about bears, bear attractants and electric fences, go to alaskabears.alaska.gov.


Charlotte Westing is the Prince William Sound Area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.