City of Kenai becomes bear aware

New partnership program aims to improve human-wildlife interaction

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2005

Private landowners and several local, state and federal organizations have partnered for the inception of a Wildlife Conservation Community Program for the city of Kenai in an effort to change the culture of how humans and wildlife — particularly brown bears — interact.

"It's a cooperative program that will be good for the city, good for residents and good for the resource," said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Kenai Peninsula is believed to have a resident population of roughly 300 brown bears, but they were designated by Fish and Game as a population of special concern in 1998. Some wildlife biologists believe that without a proactive conservation effort, the population is likely to be petitioned for a threatened or endangered listing in the future.

The reason for the concern about the bears stems from the fact that the peninsula continues to experience steady human population growth, with associated road construction and commercial, residential, recreational and industrial development that encroaches into and fragments brown bear habitat.

According to Lewis, the program has three major goals: to foster better stewardship of wildlife resources within the city of Kenai, to create safer neighborhoods for people and brown bears and to decrease the amount of agency time spent responding to complaints about nuisance brown bears within the community.

The strategy to achieve these goals is estimated to take two years, but once implemented in Kenai, the program will remain in effect in perpetuity.

It will involve converting the waste receptacles used by residents to bear-resistant ones, retrofitting Dumpsters with bear-proof lids, continuing habitat protection and organizing and conducting an outreach program oriented at educating communities about ways to respect and co-exist with bears and other wildlife.

"We need to do better than we've done in the past," Lewis said.

Human-caused defense of life and property, or DLP, bear mortalities have doubled on the peninsula over the past decade — many of which were related to garbage, pet food and livestock feed.

"Last year we had 11 human-caused bear mortalities," Lewis said, not including those legally harvested during the brown bear hunting season.

In addition, in 2004 Fish and Game responded to more than 100 calls from Kenai residents concerning nuisance bears.

"That doesn't include calls made to the Kenai Police Department or state troopers," Lewis said.

Although this volume of nuisance bear calls may seem high, it's less than in years past, due in part to the successful 2003 Bear-Safe Neighborhood pilot project that was initiated in the Valhalla Heights and Shaginoff subdivisions of Kenai. This project also served as a template for the Wildlife Conservation Community Program.

"The Valhalla Heights-Shaginoff project has been 100 percent successful," Lewis said. "We have had no problems in those areas for two years now."

Linda Snow, Kenai city manager, said it was the success of the pilot project that made her want to become involved in the Wildlife Conservation Community Program.

"It was great seeing all the residents involved learning. Some of them had no idea the things they were doing were attracting bears. Some just weren't aware. But, in Alaska, and in our community, people have to know what to do to live with bears," she said.

Snow added that the city of Kenai's in-kind contribution to the Wildlife Conservation Community Program will be to design, construct and install signs related to this program to educate and inform people.

"We want to protect people and bears and this program has real possibilities to do both," she said.

The Kenai Police Department also supports the program.

"I think it will absolutely be a positive thing," said Lt. Kim Wannamaker.

He said the department saw a marked decreased in nuisance bear calls as a result of the increased public awareness stemming directly from the pilot program in the Valhalla Heights and Shaginoff subdivisions.

Wannamaker added that the department will continue to serve as they did for the pilot project.

"We'll serve as a resource by identifying areas of concern and by enforcing city ordinances for illegal dumping or anything else that would attract bears or cause a public safety issue," he said.

The Wildlife Conservation Community Program will have an estimated cost of $183,000. Of this amount, $83,000 of in-kind support will come from nonfederal sources, including Fish and Game, Alaska's Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Safari Club International, the city of Kenai, S & R Sanitation, John Shoen, lead scientist for Audubon Alaska, and an estimated 600 private landowners, who will contribute by purchasing bear-resistant garbage containers.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service private stewardship grant in the amount of $100,000 has been applied for by these nonfederal partners to offset the remaining cost.

Bear-resistant garbage receptacles normally cost around $250, Lewis said. This high purchase price is due in part to the lack of local manufacturers on the peninsula, and so the receptacles must be purchased and shipped from Outside locations.

Lewis said he believes the program will set a precedent he's hoping others will follow.

"This program will show that we care about wildlife and want to live responsibly with it. Kenai has led the way, but hopefully it will grow to encompass other communities and eventually the whole borough. It's win-win for everyone," he said.

For more information on the Wildlife Conservation Community Program, contact Larry Lewis at Fish and Game at 262-9368.

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