I've known for years that it's a bad idea to feed bears, so I try not to leave anything lying around, but it's easy to forget and become careless.
This year was well into April, the month when bears come out of their dens, when I noticed that I had left a bird feeder on my well house. If a bear had come by, it likely would've found and eaten that bird seed. I stored it in the garage, and won't put it up again until early November.
Another time, I knew I was going to the solid-waste transfer site later in the day, so I threw a bag of garbage on top of my smokehouse, five feet above the ground. When I went to get it, I found it in the woods near my house. A bear had eaten everything a bear will eat, which is almost everything.
Then there was the time I was curing salmon roe for bait. Wanting it to dry in a cool place, I spread the skeins out on screens and laid them on a row of stacked firewood in my woodshed. They were almost six feet above the ground, so I figured they were safe from bears and dogs. The next morning, not one egg remained. The only sign of the culprit was the faint marks where claws had scraped the roe off the screens.
It's not like I live in the wilderness. My house is about 400 feet from the Kenai River, which is anything but wilderness. To get there, a bear has to cross or walk along several roads and walk past several occupied houses. I often have to remind myself that the entire Kenai Peninsula is "bear country."
Bears usually avoid houses and people, unless they've become hooked on food provided by humans, but some people might might as well hang up a sign, "FOOD FOR BEARS." A bear can smell garbage a mile away. Suet, bird seed, dog food, horse feed, barbecue grills and smokehouses also attract bears. Anything that smells good to them will draw them in, even a compost pile.
In order to survive, bears have to figure out where to find food at various times in the year, and to return to those places every year at the right time. That's what they do when they find human food in a residential area. They keep coming back until someone shoots them.
More often than not, the trouble starts when a juvenile bear, hungry, alone for the first time in its life and not yet very adept at finding food, figures out that humans leave lots of lots of it lying around. Bears learn quickly. If a young bear finds something to eat at one house or cabin, it will check out every house in a neighborhood. The following year -- if it survives -- it will come right back to the same places. If it's a female that survives long enough to have cubs, it will teach them the same bad habit.
I don't want to be responsible for a bear learning bad habits and being killed due to my ignorance or carelessness. It's not hard to make my place unattractive to bears, so that's what I do. If we all did, we'd have fewer human-bear conflicts.
Visit www.alaskabears.alaska.gov to learn all about bears and how to avoid conflict with them.
Les Palmer lives in Sterling.
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