Bear sightings common this time of year

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Monday afternoon, the Soldotna office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game responded to a call about a black bear roaming near Sears Elementary School in Kenai. Within about an hour, and amid much fanfare and under the gaze of school-aged children, the bear was tranquilized and removed from the residential neighborhood to be dispersed back into the wilderness.

In case there's any doubt, the bears are back out.

Human negligence could invite them into human surroundings -- something for which Fish and Game said it will levy punishment.

Although bear activity was relatively quiet through the early parts of this elongated spring, Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis said his office recently has seen a marked growth in nuisance bear calls.

"There's a lot going on," he said. "It's gotten a little overwhelming, and I haven't had the opportunity to catalog them."

Fish and Game area biologist Jeff Selinger said he and Lewis have responded to "dozens" of bear calls in the last two weeks.

"I've probably put in 20 hours in the past couple of weeks," Selinger said of time spent responding to the calls. "Larry has probably done at least twice as much."

Lewis said people should remember that each year black and brown bears may wander into residential areas enticed by the smells from garbage, pet foods and human food left out in the open.

"They are motivated by hunger," he said. "Anything that can attract those animals to that site and condition them to a human habitation is not a good thing."

He said even barbecue grills can draw bears near and should be thoroughly cleaned after use and kept in a closed place. The danger is that when bears find easy sources of food, they will return to that source.

"Food conditioning and human habituation are bad a combination, because the bear learns to associate humans with food," Lewis said. "And they can get nasty if that food is not readily available."

A state law -- titled 5 AAC 92.230 -- prohibits the feeding of Alaska wildlife, including wolves, moose and bears. The law also makes it illegal to "negligently leave human food, pet food or garbage in a manner that attracts these animals." It is a citable offense, with a fine of up to $100.

"The regulation's been in effect for a while," Lewis said. "We've been making a real effort to educate and not get too heavy handed with it. But we're going to be a lot more active in our enforcement of it. If it's a pretty egregious and careless thing, they're going to be cited for their behavior. They're putting themselves and their neighbors in danger, as well as the bear."

Between the moose calving season and the current bear breeding season, which Lewis said will last through June, now more than any other time people should be bear aware. He said the high activity period will be brief while bears are searching for a viable food source.

"When the fish hit the river, it tends to slow down," Lewis said.

But Selinger cautioned that bear encounters have been reported as late as November and as early as January. Lewis added that living in Alaska requires an ongoing awareness.

"Always behave as though there are bears around all the time," Lewis said.

He said it is important to notify Fish and Game immediately upon spotting a bear around any areas densely populated by humans.

If people have interactions, he urges them to call Fish and Game at 262-9368. If it's after hours, contact Alaska State Troopers or local police.

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