A young brown bear wallows in buried waste in Kenai several years ago. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and city of Kenai are hoping a $90,000 federal grant will help cut down on negative interactions between humans and bears.
Clarion file photo
A $90,000 federal grant is about to give the city of Kenai and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game an opportunity to try and change human behavior and thus discourage hungry bears from wandering into the central Kenai Peninsula community in search of easy pickings.
The grant, which will come via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Private Stewardship Grants Program, will be passed through Kenai to the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Safari Club International, a hunters’ group dedicated to preserving wildlife, which will administer the grant.
As of Thursday, introduction of an ordinance accepting the grant had yet to be scheduled for a Kenai City Council agenda.
State fish and game officials will oversee the project, described by one as a kind of pilot program that could spread elsewhere in Alaska if this one is successful at getting the active participation of the public in making neighborhoods bear-safe.
A 2004 test program already has made one Kenai neighborhood bear safe. A legislative request for funds to establish a citywide program netted the $90,000.
Essentially, the grant will make funds available to homeowners to subsidize purchase of bear-proof garbage containers. S&R Sanitation has joined with the agencies in the effort to discourage bears, as well as other wildlife including moose, from wandering into neighborhoods in search of food.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game receives literally hundreds of reports over the course of a typical summer season regarding everything from bear sightings to actual attacks, said Jeff Selinger, an area wildlife biologist.
Sometimes it’s just that neighborhoods have been built over what had been corridors typically used by bears. But more often than not, occurrences in populated areas are connected in some way to poor human habits, he said.
“We don’t expect people to live in gated communities, but we are looking for them to take reasonable measures to eliminate attractants,” Selinger said.
Bears, moose and other wildlife are learning that human-populated areas are a great source of food.
“It’s a major issue we deal with at Fish and Game,” Selinger said. “Local law enforcement officers also answer nuisance bear and moose calls, particularly in Kenai.”
By taking a proactive approach, Fish and Game hopes to educate homeowners about handling and disposing of garbage in a way that won’t attract bears. Poor habits, such as leaving garbage exposed, dumping fish waste on the side of the road, or leaving pets and small farm animals vulnerable can all contribute to the frequency of bear-human encounters and ultimately lead to the needless destruction of bears.
“Wildlife is a public trust and it has value,” said Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician largely responsible for pushing the bear-safe community program on the peninsula.
Hungry bruins are only doing what comes naturally expending as little energy as possible to find and consume available protein and to fatten up for winter, Lewis said. Garbage often is highly nutritious, but so-called nuisance bears are dangerous and a considerable threat to people, pets and property.
“You could kill every bear that walks into your community, but is that really the image you want for this state?’ he said.
There are steps people can take to lower the attractiveness of neighborhoods, and the Fish and Game Web site has a list of useful tips. (See related story, this page)
Through the grant program, Lewis hopes to make communities safer, cut law enforcement costs and promote better stewardship of wildlife resources. But residents must be willing to take preventive steps, and municipalities must be committed to enforcing garbage ordinances, he said, adding the city of Kenai has strict rules about garbage.
“But most people don’t eat, sleep and drink wildlife,” he said. “It’s easy to become complacent.”
Lewis said he’s responded to calls from citizens facing bear problems and found, for instance, dishes outside filled with pet food and suet hanging from bird feeders.
“They’ll say, ‘I didn’t even think about that,’” he said.
But habits are hard to break. Just because you’ve never had an encounter doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Live here long enough and the chances only go up.
“It’s like death and taxes,” Lewis said.
The population on the peninsula has grown significantly in the past couple of decades, and contact between bears and humans is increasing as neighborhoods encroach on bear country, Selinger said.
“Bears are intelligent. They are driven by their noses to put fat on for the winter. The more they encounter residences and obtain easy food, the more interactions with bears there will be.”
Bears will return to the same place to feast as long as the food is there. That can include easily opened freezers full of fish sitting on porches. If food is found in one large rectangular box, any similar box is likely to be investigated, Selinger said.
Once comfortable within human habitats, a bear’s chances of survival may actually decline. They face being shot by residents or law enforcement officials in defense of life and property. Bear encounters have led to human fatalities, as well.
Lewis noted that while it is legal to dispense with a threatening bear, if that bear was attracted due to your negligent behavior, you could be slapped with a fine.
Education, however, can help change human habits.
“It took us a while to get used to seat belts and car seats, but we did,” he said.
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