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Trash Shift Aimed at Foiling Bear Foragers in Anchorage
Pickup:  No Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. start means garbage won't sit long

Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / August 14, 2005

Anchorage's biggest trash company has agreed to change the days and hours of residential trash pickup in an effort to stop bears from raiding garbage at night.

So that people will stop putting cans and bags outside the day before pickup, Alaska Waste will stop Saturday service at homes within two weeks, spokesman Craig Gales said. The company has 41,000 residential customers, with two or three Saturday routes running through neighborhoods in or near bear habitat.

Beginning next May, morning pickup will begin no earlier than 7:30 a.m. during summer for all residents, including 10,000 customers in central Anchorage served by city solid-waste utility crews. The delay will allow time for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to approve the change.

But altering local trash schedules won't, by itself, solve the city's bear-in-the-garbage problem, city and state officials acknowledged Tuesday, during a sunny lunchtime press conference at Hillside Park in the heart of a suburban bear zone.

Over the past decade, more and more black bears have learned to forage for garbage, pet food and bird seed in neighborhoods along the Chugach foothills and Eagle River. Bears searching for food near housing increase the chances that someone, possibly a child, will surprise one at close range and get mauled or killed.

Since 1995, 113 black bears have been killed in the city, including 12 animals shot or captured this summer.

During the press conference, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich said the city will install 18 additional bear-proof trash containers in parks and push for more money to fund state wildlife management in the city. But the mayor said a key to solving the conflict depends on convincing people to change their garbage handling habits.

"We need the public to keep the trash contained and not put it out any earlier than what we just described," Begich said. "This is not just the problem of government and private business. ... We need to work together to keep our neighborhoods as safe as possible."

Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell made a similar point.

"What we are going to need, really, is the collective will of the people of Anchorage," he said. "By the very simple expedient of storing trash and not making it available, and not having bears associate people and food together, we can eliminate about 95 percent of the bear problem."

Yet the two officials, who praised each other's cooperation on the issue, differed on what should be done to stop those who continue feeding bears with their trash.

"The state will continue to enforce our state law against feeding wildlife," Campbell said. "And we know we're going to count on the municipality to enforce their law about not having garbage out (before midnight) the day before. And I think both of those together will be an excellent job."

Begich agreed on the need for more state enforcement but said afterward that the city won't divert police officers to patrol neighborhoods just to search for garbage cans placed at the curb before midnight.

Enforcing the regulation "will depend on the resources we have," he said.

Bears had been a sore point between city and state officials, each side saying the other needs to do more to reduce bear-human conflict.

The disagreement flared recently when Fish and Game area management biologist Rick Sinnott offered particularly pointed criticism of local residents dumping fish carcasses where bears were sure to find them. In response, Campbell pulled Sinnott off bear duty until next spring.

State wildlife officials also cut back on responding to routine bear calls at night. The state issued a statement Tuesday saying the department would respond to emergencies during the night or early morning. "The department has never had and never will have enough resources or staff to respond to every bear call," it added.

If a bear starts causing damage or danger at night, people should call police or Alaska State Troopers.

So what should people do if they find garbage left outside at night on their street -- and fear it will attract bears?

"They should let their neighbors know," Begich said. "Government doesn't have to always be the solution. You can go and talk to the neighbor -- that's the neighborly thing to do."

Begich said he had faith that Anchorage people will learn that garbage attracts dangerous animals into neighborhoods, and will act prudently.

The officials conducted the press conference standing in front of a bear-proof container used in city parks and a bear-resistant tipper cart that Alaska Waste will rent to residents for $5 per month.

Gales, who oversaw testing of the cart with the black bears at the Alaska Zoo several years ago, said the company has 50 of them in stock. A bear-resistant cage for containers also can be rented, he said.

The state's utility regulatory commission has no problem with eliminating Saturday pickups and wants to work with Alaska Waste but will need to review changes in the schedule, chairwoman Kate Giard said.

Losing Saturdays and compressing the schedule in summer will increase costs for Alaska Waste, Gales said. "We have to bring on some extra equipment to make that happen. ...But we're willing to bear that burden."

The company doesn't plan to ask for a rate increase, he said.

As usual, late July and early August is a lull in Anchorage's bear season, with the city's bruins pursuing berries and fish and generally staying away from people, assistant area biologist Jessy Coltrane said in a phone interview. The only recent report was a black bear seen in Centennial Campground in Muldoon.

But bears would begin to search for more food come September, Campbell said, in their seasonal push to fatten before winter's long sleep.

"Absolutely, there will be an increase of bear activity in neighborhoods," he said at the end of the press conference. "So we have a little bit of time to try to make a real significant start on this. I mean, we need to start tonight."

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com .

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