A brown bear cub browses in tundra near Marathon Road at the edge of Kenai last summer as the cub's mother and twin sibling (not pictured) ambled nearby. The trio rummaged through trash in nearby neighborhoods for several weeks.
Clarion file photo
As the daylight hours grow longer and the snow melts, bears begin to emerge from their dens. Some are content to sit outside their den and soak up the sun, others have cubs in tow, but generally all bears are in search of one thing: easy food.
Wildlife technician Larry Lewis, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said bears generally begin stirring as early as March, but not a month goes by that bear reports don't trickle into the department's Soldotna office. As the latest presenter in the Kenai Watershed Forum's Winter Speaker Series, Lewis will tell residents that co-existing peacefully with bears isn't the animals' responsibility, it's ours. Lewis' presentation will take place at the Kenai River Center 7 p.m. March 11.
"I'm trying to raise awareness for people," Lewis said. He wants to get people to consider the long term consequences for short term lapses in judgement and how that can affect their neighbors. "If they can think outside the box a little bit and help keep bears wild and people safe," he said.
When bears emerge from their dens, Lewis said they are motivated by their search for easily accessible food. Sometimes if they don't find any bears will go back into their dens, but more often than not, their search will lead them to a transfer site or someone's back porch. Most bear encounters are reported between April and June, Lewis said. Bears are opportunistic, and Lewis wants people to realize that if an animal can find a meal at someone's back porch, there's no reason for them to naturally forage for their own food.
"I don't look at that as a problem bear, I look at it as a people behavior problem," Lewis said. "If we look at the greater picture, we choose to live in coastal Alaska and these animals are indigenous to this area, they have an intrinsic value. I don't think anybody can deny we would have less of an Alaska if we didn't have brown bears here, so it's our human responsibility to live responsibly with these animals."
Human responsibility doesn't stop with bears, Lewis said. He mentioned a moose situation down in Ninilchik. Someone had been feeding it, he said, and even though it's not dangerous it's created a lot of problems. A large animal doesn't know its own strength, and it's learned to associate people with food. Lewis said there's a possibility the moose could approach kids walking home from school and other folks in the neighborhood trying to find free handouts.
"Generally it's the animal that pays the price for something that didn't have to happen in the first place," Lewis said.
Jan Yaeger, education and outreach coordinator for the Kenai River Center, said the center timed Lewis's presentation with the outset of spring. Now that it's warming up, bears can be out at any time, she said. Their search for food is particularly important and people should take a look around their property and remove anything that might attract bears.
"It's just a good heads up," she said, adding that Lewis is usually the person who deals with human-bear encounters. "Larry has worked with human-bear encounters and he's a good storyteller. I have a feeling some stories will probably work their way in there."
Lewis said wildlife problems aren't specific to Alaska. Whether it's living with mountain lions or coyotes, development displaces wildlife. But because humans leave out readily available food sources, people have encouraged them to stay. Often, the calls Lewis receives are from people who tell him that they've got a bear problem and he needs to come do something about it.
"Our goal here is to help people understand that there are responsibilities that we have that the animals don't," he said. "They're not responsible to us."
Even though people have heard much of what Lewis has to say numerous times, he said he feels it's good to refresh peoples' memories.
"I encourage anybody that's interested in wildlife and living safely with it to come on out," he said. "I like to make these things real interactive and get people talking. I've got some pretty good pictures to."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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