EAGLE RIVER — Although the heavy winter snow may have them wanting to hit the snooze button, it won’t be long before local bears begin to rise and shine for the spring.
That means now is the time to begin making preparations to avoid dangerous encounters with Alaska’s most notorious forest dwellers.
“We have entered bear season, so you need to take a very good look around your property to see what kind of attractants you have,” said Jessy Coltrane, a wildlife management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Coltrane said bear sightings have been reported this spring, and with each passing day it’s likely more bears will emerge from their winter dens.
“We’re starting to get more bears up every day,” she said.
The best thing homeowners can do to make sure their summer is bear free is get rid of any reason a bear might have to come sniffing around. Coltrane said that means storing garbage in a secure location and “not a rickety old shed,” taking down bird feeders, making sure pet food is indoors and cleaning outdoor barbecue grills.
Because Eagle River and Chugiak are prime bear habitat, many people have likely heard these tips before. But Coltrane said the long winter can sometimes make people forget how to behave around bruins.
“Every spring people need a reminder,” she said. “People have been hibernating all winter long as well.”
While garbage and pet food have always been a problem, livestock — especially chickens — has been a growing concern in recent years. Coltrane said Fish and Game strongly advises anyone with chicken coops or other livestock to invest in an electric fence.
“We highly recommend electric fencing to protect your livestock,” she said.
Along with staying safe at home, folks also need to start becoming more aware of bears while enjoying the outdoors. In order to give people a better handle on how to play in bear country, Fish and Game held a bear safety workshop on Sunday, April 15 at the Eagle River Nature Center. There, education and outreach specialist Elizabeth Manning and wildlife technician Tony Carnahan gave a crash course in how to avoid bears — and also how to react when you encounter them.
“We want everyone to feel more comfortable living around bears,” Manning told about two dozen participants in the workshop.
With an estimated 250-300 black bears and at least 65 brownies roaming the Anchorage Municipality, Manning said anyone who spends much time outdoors is likely to see a bear at some point in their travels. But by following a few simple rules, she said people can almost always make their brushes with bruins brief.
“Bears do a really good job of keeping out of our way,” she said, explaining that most bears want no part of humans and often do their best to avoid people.
When hiking or recreating outdoors, Manning said the most important things to do are make noise, travel in groups and be vigilant at all times.
“Just be using all your senses,” she said.
That means looking for bear signs (scat, prints, hair), listening for movement in the bushes (no headphones), and sniffing the air for unusual smells — such as a dead moose — that might mean a bear is hanging around.
If a bear is encountered, Manning said people’s first reaction should be to stay still and assess the situation. If the bear seems unaware of your presence, she said, slowly and quietly walk away. If the bear has spotted you, however, she said it’s important to let the animal know you’re a human by raising your arms and talking in a low, calm voice.
“It’s really important not to turn and run,” she said, noting that most bear attacks happen because a bear feels threatened by a human who has come upon it suddenly. Running, she said, will make the bear chase you. “If you run from a bear, it triggers a chase instinct.”
Fish and Game suggests people carry bear spray and be familiar with how to use it. However, Manning said the spray is most effective at close range, and should only be used in an extreme encounter.
“If you use it once, that’s pretty much it,” she said.
Carnahan said carrying bear spray or firearms can be useful as a last line of defense, but people should not forget bear basics just because they’re armed.
“Go out there like you don’t have anything,” he said.
Finally, Manning said that if people encounter a bear that they feel is acting overly aggressive or threatening neighborhoods, they should alert authorities.
“If there’s anything you think is a problem, don’t hesitate to call Fish and Game,” she said.