Talkeetna residents form group to deal with bear problems

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Despite $300 spent bear-proofing the garbage bin at the Alaska Railroad depot in downtown Talkeetna last year, the bruins got in a parting shot.

Thwarted by the locked steel lid, a grizzly shoved the 600-pound trash container 30 feet into thick brush. Bill Stearns of Talkeetna Refuse had to haul it out with a winch.

''He just literally beat it around like it was nothing,'' said Stearns, who spent much of his summer defending his garbage bins from a bear onslaught.

Nearly half a dozen bears were killed in Talkeetna last year to protect people and homes, said state game biologist Herman Griese.

Many more residents reported close encounters, said Brian Okonek, a longtime resident and former mountaineering guide.

Brian and Diane Okonek started the group Bear Necessities last fall, in an effort to educate residents and tourists to be more careful about their garbage, which could help keep bears out of town and make it unnecessary to resort to guns.

''We don't want bears in Talkeetna getting shot every summer because they're in our garbage,'' she said.

The group has the support of state Department of Fish and Game officials and National Park Service employees, who plan to give bear education seminars in schools and in the community.

The group already has the backing of dozens of local businesses and residents, Diane Okonek said. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has also agreed to give out free coupons for people to take garbage to the dump.

The group also is sponsoring a design contest for posters to be put near fishing streams reminding people to dispose of salmon remains in fast-flowing water instead of on or near shore, where they can attract bears.

''The goal is to keep bears wild and people safe,'' Brian Okonek said.

The group's efforts have won praise from biologists like Griese, who said Talkeetna was one of the worst spots in borough last year for bear problems.

The problems are not unique. From Juneau to Girdwood to Anchorage, the combination of bears, people and garbage has proved a troublesome mix. In Anchorage, about a dozen bears are shot in defense of life or property each year, many because they have learned to feed on garbage and have lost their fear of people, said state game biologist Rick Sinnott.

In Juneau, where problem bears are sighted almost daily in summer, city officials adopted an ordinance requiring residents to keep garbage inside or in bear-proof containers.

Talkeetna, which is surrounded by wilderness full of bears and is near rich salmon streams, hasn't been troubled much in the past, residents said. But they hope to make last summer's bruin problem an exception.

Among the bears shot was a grizzly sow that a woman was feeding in a misguided attempt to protect her horse. The sow had originally been eating garbage on the woman's property.

Stearns, who owns Talkeetna Refuse, said he spent nearly $5,000 bear-proofing more than a dozen garbage bins in town this summer by adding steel lids and a locking steel rod across the top.

He also spent extra time steam cleaning the containers and rotating them in hopes of removing smells that attract bears. He didn't want someone to get hurt, he said, and he was tired of the beating his containers were taking.

''They were getting hit just about every night,'' he said.

Diane Okonek said she has high hopes for reducing bear encounters this summer. Residents are already more aware of the problem, she said. But she acknowledged the true test will be later this year when the bears wake up and smell the garbage.

''Then reality will strike,'' she said.

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