Busting myths about bears in Cordova

Cordova City Council reviews bear issues in Cordova during July 6 meeting

A black bear who is a frequent visitor outside the premises of The Whale’s Tale. Photo courtesy of Wendy Ranney

Updated: 9:03 a.m. Friday, July 22, 2022

Guest speaker Charlotte Westing, Area Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, joined Cordova City Council on July 6 to discuss brown and black bears in Cordova. Westing has lived here almost a decade, and like a plethora of folks that discovered this place, she too found the sense of adventure, breathtaking nature and endless wildlife made it a wonderful place to build a life.

“I came here like most people, because its an incredible and beautiful place that’s wild and abundant with resources, and bears are a part of that. They are a part of that natural landscape that we all love so much,” Westing said.

Expert in her field, Westing shared that in some places, humans are “encroaching” into bear habitat and creating a negative impact on them, but that’s not the case in Cordova. According to reports, bears started appearing in the last frontier roughly 1.8 million years ago. Humans and Ursids haven’t been co-mingling very long here in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to co-exist now and in the future.

“Our bear populations are doing well, and they have an abundant resource to eat,” Westing said. “In a lot of years, we actually don’t have bear problems in town. One out of every three years, we have no defense of life and property kills and very few calls to the Cordova Police Department.”

These times create a space for the public to get complacent, Westing continued.

“Some years can be a lot more casual about securing attractants than others,” Westing said.

Westing served as bear myth buster during the Council meeting.

The first myth: If a bear is comfortable in town, it is a problem bear.

“The truth is, bears naturally wander in and out of our neighborhoods as they eat natural foods (i.e., salmon berries, strawberries. The bears don’t perceive property lines, they are great climbers. They are around us all the time, whether we see them or not,” said Westing, who shared they are animals that are “designed to live in the shadows,” but can get relatively comfortable around people if they are around all the time, becoming familiar with our routines, like when we take out the trash.

“But they live for the most part very comfortable proximity to us … and are generally skittish around humans,” Westing said.

“If they hit the smorgasbord of Cordova trash, they will start to stay, and attractants make them stick around,” she said. “Bears have a great memory, whether that’s from mapping the natural world or the urban world, they get to learn where the food resources are. Once they start to set a pattern, they will check it every time. The best thing to do Is not make those attractants an option for them.”

During a deer pellet transects excursion, Westing and her team scouted from the coast up to Alpine and made an interesting, unusual discovery.

“For the first time in over 20 years we had a divergent trend in the transects. At the coast everything was free and clear of snow. At the highest point, we had ten feet of snow still … we could see why some bears have realized there are berries at lower elevations, that’s where they are spending their time,” said Westing.

The second myth discussed: Bears that find communities can never go back to the wild.

“Our bear project found that in 2018 (a bad bear year for salmon berries and blue berries), we had radio collared bears that expanded their home range movements 10 ten times, using a much larger footprint of space to find food, overlapping with Cordova in many instances,” Westing said. “At least two of the 17 bears shot in town that year, they were older than 15 years old, another was 19 years old … that tells me the bear made good choices, staying out of town or living comfortably around us. It’s just in that year, she crossed the line and that was an agency kill, and its desperation when it comes to that.”

The third myth: This problem is unique to Cordova.

Westing pointed out that there are several more populated areas in Alaska and the Lower 48 that live amongst the bears.

There are communities throughout North America that have humans and black bears co-existing: the Tahoe Basin in Northern California, Juno, Durango, and Ashville, North Carolina. Anchorage, Alaska, has both species of bears.

“These are not unique problems to us, trying to figure out how to live comfortably with bears. Bears are not inherently a threat, and we want to keep it that way by helping them behave like normal, natural bears. Bears can hurt people and that’s not a risk we take lightly,” Westing said.

Westing then forayed into discussing the unified bear response team in Cordova that include two locally based Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Westing, Cordova Police Department, refuse department, dispatch and U.S. Forest Service.

“All of these parties work together, recognizing that we have a different component of the puzzle, and a different type of expertise to bring to the discussion,” Westing said. “Most of us have kids and most of us live in the spots of town that have the highest amount of bear activity. We are highly invested in the safety and well being of this community.”

The team speaks regularly and decides what to do about a bear sighting, a potentially delicate situation that Westing said isn’t taken lightly.

Westing shared common calls that come into her office are people asking why she isn’t trapping the bear.

“I have a culvert trap I use from time to time,” Westing said. “The problem is, the only way I will trap a bear is if it has a death sentence and we’ve determined that bear is dangerous to people, I will trap the bear so we can kill it in a more controlled way with less hazard to people. We don’t move bears, there are numerous examples where they have been moved and immediately come back to town.”

Westing shared a story about a brown bear that was transferred to Montague Island and swam the crossing back to Cordova within a two-week time frame.

Hazing a bear is something that is sometimes used, such as creating loud noises (a firecracker) to deter the animal from the community.

“As far as rubber bullets or less lethal rounds, is something we only use if we believe all the other attractants have been secured and we need to give the bear a bas experience to break them out of that pattern of following their food coma (map) that they have made,” said Westing.

What can citizens do about bears being in the community? Westing discussed the Defense of Life and Property law, put in place to protect human life. A specific code reads as follows: “You may kill a bear in defense of your 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 (5 AAC 92.410).”

More details on the Defense of Life and Property law are posted on the city website, so that the public may familiarize themselves with it.

“The bottom line is, if you need to shoot a bear to defend your life or property you can do that, but you need to understand what the rules are,” Westing said.

There are ways to mitigate the appearance of bears in our backyards and neighborhoods, Westing shared, being proactive in taking steps to reduce and eliminate access to attractants is a big one.

“The best thing you can do is making your neighborhood unattractive to bears,” she said. “We can do that by talking to our neighbors when we see if they have had trouble with their trash, other things that you know are attracting bears into the community, talk to each other … we can work together to try and find solutions.”

Correction

This story has been updated to correct an error. The original story misstated the bear population in Ashville, North Carolina. There are bears that den in downtown Ashville, a city which has a human population of approximately 90,000. The original story also put this information in direct quotes. This was incorrect as the information was paraphrased by the reporter. The Cordova Times is committed to accuracy. If you suspect an error, please email share@thecordovatimes.com.