When bears come knocking, what's a neighborhood to do?
With some help from several organizations, the Valhalla Heights and Shaginoff subdivisions in Kenai will become a bear-safe model neighborhood, an opportunity to see what can be done to curtail visits from garbage-foraging bears.
"This was the best place to start," said Alaska Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis Thursday evening at a meeting for subdivision residents held at the Eagle's Lodge in Kenai.
"We want to see this grow. And if we can make it work in this neighborhood, it can work in other communities."
As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Private Land-owner Incentive Grant, the 56 homeowners in this subdivision will receive special "bear-resistant" garbage receptacles and trash collection services from Peninsula Sanitation free of charge until December 2004.
Lewis said the neighborhood was selected as the pilot for the program because its location makes it unique for bear activity. Situated just above Mile 9 of the Kenai Spur Highway, the alcove of about 56 homes is fronted by the highway to the south and adjacent to Twin Cities Race Track and Snow-Shoe Gun Club to the west and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to the northeast.
The westernmost areas have limited human presence during the year, and the refuge can be a safe haven for bears. But Lewis said if the bears in the area become habituated to humans and conditioned to eating food provided by humans, they will venture outside these potential safe havens.
Similar projects were initiated on Anchorage's Hillside area and in Cooper Landing. Fish and Game Regional Supervisor Jeffrey Hughes said both projects have proven to be successful in preventing bears from accessing garbage to eat.
Fourteen residents attended the Thursday meeting. Resident Dwayne Thompson said just the presence of bears didn't constitute a problem, in his opinion, and said bear sightings in Alaska were no cause for all the fuss. He and his wife Vicki asked exactly what constituted a problem.
"It's like having a moose in your yard," he said. "They're not bothering anything and there's no need to pay attention."
Area Fish and Game biologist Jeff Selinger responded that a bear problem is any call that requires some sort of action on the part of his department.
"If we have to come out and dart a bear, or remove a bear from the area, or respond to a DLP (defense of life and property) call, there is a problem," he said. "We want to prevent a problem from starting here."
Peninsula Sanitation's Dennis Smith displayed a garbage can similar to the units that will be distributed through Valhalla Heights and Shaginoff. The green, rectangular rubber totes are about 4 1/2 feet tall with a lid that opens on a hinge. The hinge also serves as a handle. Two wheels are located on the bottom on the same side as the handle.
Smith said a sturdier version of the tote more similar to the ones residents will receive is metal-reinforced and will be distributed with metal carabiners to hold the lids closed. A model filled with bear attractants passed a test run at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, he said.
"We left one with two black bears for an hour," he said. "They worked on it with no success."
Jeffrey Hughes, Fish and Game's regional supervisor, cautioned that the receptacles are not in fact "bear proof," but still are effective deterrents to hungry animals. He added that a little periodic care, like keeping the containers near the home except on pickup day and cleaning the containers every so often with water and bleach, will discourage would-be foragers.
Smith said the totes aren't indestructible, and if a grizzly decides to jump up and down on on one "like a gorilla" to get to whatever's inside, "they could likely destroy it."
Residents identified other contributing factors to increased garbage bears in that neighborhood.
"Sometimes people come down to our creek to clean the fish they catch in the summer," said Margaret Howell. "And they aren't even from the state."
Sherri Baktuit said dumping on some of the empty or unused land behind the neighborhood also could be drawing bruins into the area.
"Garbage breeds garbage," she said. "What do you do about junk cars and trash being dumped there?"
Kenai City Manager Linda Snow was present at the meeting and said the city would post signs in the right of ways of the roads near unoccupied land in the neighborhood to discourage dumping. City code enforcement officer John Parker, also in attendance, said dumping was illegal and said property owners, ultimately, are responsible for cleaning up junk vehicles and trash heaps that could be potentially hazardous or inviting to bears.
Lewis said the success of the program will be determined by a reduction to the number of DLP calls his office receives.
The residents could get the containers by the beginning of July, Smith said. And alternatives to the totes, such as portable electrical fences, will also be made available through the program. When the program ends, residents who wish to continue the service will be able to for $21 per month.
The group will come back together in either late October or early November to discuss the progress of the pilot program.
"When the money runs out, the hook is that this project will work well enough that you will want to continue doing it on your own," Hughes said. "That will help make this community safer from bears."
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