A Shocking Thought: Bears and People Could Coexist in Anchorage
Sherry Simpson / Anchorage Press / September 1, 2005
The black bear was gone by the time the wildlife biologists arrived at the Chuck Albrecht Softball Complex, in Midtown, this summer. Rick Sinnott and Jessy Coltrane studied the trash heaped around a battered garbage can, now lying on its side. The bear must have ducked back into the woods, inexplicably leaving behind a paper plate slicked with nacho grease and salsa among the litter of fast food wrappers and soda bottles. "When I was a kid, we'd come to the field and we'd play baseball, and then we'd go home and eat," Sinnott said.
The day was warm already, but Sinnott wore rubber XtraTuf boots, perpetually ready to chase one wild animal or another through a bog. This bear might have been one of three regulars hanging around, said Coltrane, Sinnott's assistant. She described them as "a big one, a limpy one, and one that's small and not limpy or big." By July, Sinnott and Coltrane, who work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, could identify many of the persistent bears that forage through the city's neighborhoods.
Coltrane said she'd call the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and they'd probably call the Simonian League, which maintains the softball fields, to pressure organizers into abiding by their agreement to empty cans into a nearby Dumpster - the one with the locking lid, the one that bears can't open. Sinnott drops by city parks now and then to see how much garbage fills the cans. One afternoon, 13 of the 14 unlidded containers rimming these fields held food, he said - which would explain the frequent bear sightings.
It's tempting to suppose that people leave garbage out in the city because they just don't realize they share it with bears. That is, at any rate, the most charitable explanation. Recently, Coltrane recalled, a man phoned to say "I don't know if it's something I need to report, but I've been seeing bears and it's very centralized in the middle of the city." By centralized, he didn't mean the Performing Arts Center on Fourth Avenue. He meant the ballpark where Sinnott and Coltrane stood, a few hundred yards from Tudor Road.
Coltrane said she reminded the caller of the forest beyond the fenced fields. From there you could walk through Far North Bicentennial Park, hike into a half-million acres of Chugach State Park, and beyond that disappear into the wild and open bulk of Alaska, most of it the province of bears.
"Oh, yeah," said the caller, Coltrane recalled, "I guess I never thought about that because there's a paved trail."
The bike path must have seemed like some sort of Maginot Line, a defensive boundary the bears would refuse to cross. Like so many people in Anchorage, this caller had drawn mental borders separating wilderness and civilization in thick, impenetrable lines - but really, the margin between where we live and where bears live is porous.
If Coltrane and Sinnott had discovered a bear at the softball fields, they would have first tried to photograph it eating garbage, so as to make a stronger impression on the Simonian League. Then they probably would have chased it off.
But, said Coltrane, "It'd just come back."
"They just come back," Sinnott agreed.
"It's just a waste," Sinnott continued. "It's like a dollar and a half for every rubber bullet we shoot at it, and it's like, why are we wasting this money? We don't have this money anyway."
Sinnott's exasperation was understandable. A few days before, he and Coltrane had been forced to shoot a young female black bear at Glen Alps after it climbed into an open car and helped itself to the driver's lunch and some groceries. Sinnott and Coltrane suspected it was the same bear people had been feeding at the Glen Alps parking lot. The dead bear looked hardly larger than a Labrador in a photograph of the scene.
"It's infuriating," Coltrane said of people feeding bears. "It's like, what part of this do you think is a good idea for you or the bear?"
The pair had also recently killed a large male bear that refused to run away even after they hollered and pelted it with rocks. "I had a six-foot-long stick, this big around, and I was like, 'Ahhhh!' like a crazed gorilla," Coltrane said. "And the bear was like, 'What's your problem?'"
That is not the way most bears behave; usually they are big fraidy cats around people. But this bear may have been the one seen about a week before eating from the hand of a man at the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead. Over the years, Coltrane and Sinnott have chased off scores of black bears with some assertive hollering and the occasional well-placed rock. Once they herded three bears simultaneously from an apple orchard using a vigorous combination of Sinnott's ballet moves and Coltrane's NFL feints. But after this male bear whirled and snapped at Sinnott, they decided it was one bear that could no longer coexist with people.
So they shot it.
This is always the difficult part of their jobs: tapping the scales this way and that, trying to balance their responsibility to conserve wildlife with the potential risk from a bear grown fond of trash, or a bear that feels too comfortable or assertive around people.
By this July day, when Sinnott and Coltrane were at the softball fields, another seven bears had been killed in 2005 in the Anchorage area, slain by concerned homeowners or wildlife troopers. Sinnott and Coltrane had sent three other captured black bears to Fairbanks for a hibernation study; these also count as "bears killed in defense of life and property," because scientists will sacrifice the animals next year. (Bears cannot be released after they have been held in captivity in Alaska.) Two more were struck dead by vehicles.
It's been five years since so many bears have died in Anchorage.
Imagine the column of dead animals stretching behind that small black bear lying limp in the dirt road at Glen Alps, its belly full of Honey Bunches of Oats. Since 1995, at least 127 bears have been killed in the Municipality of Anchorage in defense of life and property. Another 25 bears were killed by cars or the train, and 30 more were sent to zoos or otherwise relocated. Because some Alaskans still adhere to the principle of "Shoot, shovel and shut up," the actual number of bears killed is surely even larger.
For some, this accounting is a barometer, signaling a change in the city's atmosphere - that we're losing our identity as an Alaskan community, that we've grown too careless with our endowments. For others, it means nothing of the sort; how could it, when we live in a community surrounded by an estimated 250 to 300 black bears and 65 brown bears - in a state with an estimated 150,000 black bears and 35,000 brown bears? More wilderness lies yonder, the thinking goes, and always will. The jagged edges of the city may grind against what remains of forests and open alpine in the Anchorage Bowl, in Eagle River Valley and Girdwood, but we can always go looking for Alaska, or bears, somewhere else.
For years, Rick Sinnott has been trying like crazy to make Anchorage residents care what happens to urban bears, from the folks in elegant houses on the Hillside to people in trailer courts off Muldoon Road. Bears aren't snobs. They'll eat anybody's garbage, any old bowl of cheap dog food, any little stash of birdseed. This connection does not require quantum mechanics to understand, yet every summer Coltrane and Sinnott take hundreds of calls from residents nervous about the bear that was rummaging through their trash, and they repeatedly visit neighborhoods where bags of garbage bulge from open containers and cans sit on curbs for hours, even days, waiting for the trash collectors.
This summer, Coltrane and Sinnott gave an unprecedented number of $100 citations to people caught violating a state regulation that prohibits leaving garbage in a manner that attracts bears, either deliberately or negligently. But they know those 22 tickets weren't nearly enough to convince anyone that if you bait bears with garbage in the Anchorage Bowl, you're going to pay for it.
Possibly the most discouraging thing for Sinnott has been the way every opportunity to make lasting changes seemingly fades because of inertia or apathy. Part of the problem is that truly deciding to co-exist with bears costs money. The last time anyone tried to force a widespread change was in 1996, when then-assembly member Pat Abney proposed an ordinance requiring municipal parks and homeowners in neighborhoods frequented by bears to use bear-proof containers during summer and fall. Nobody wanted to pay for them. She withdrew the measure.
Sinnott tried most everything he could think of after that. A 1997 survey of Anchorage residents revealed that most people said they liked having animals around, and 70 percent believed the right number or too few bears lived in town. But feelings aren't actions. A two-year educational campaign about trash and bears seems to have convinced some people to put away birdfeeders in the summer and to rat on careless neighbors. Other than that, Sinnott said, "I don't think it's done anything."
This summer, Fish and Game focused on dealing with trash at the source rather than chasing bears around after it was too late (though they did plenty of chasing, too). They had some success. In response to a letter from Sinnott, and follow-up meetings with Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell, Mayor Mark Begich announced that garbage would not be picked up any earlier than 7:30 a.m. in bear season, starting next year. The change makes it easier for residents to wait until the morning of pickup to put their trash cans out, rather than leaving garbage vulnerable to bears all night. Alaska Waste also agreed to eliminate its Saturday collection. And Begich promised the city would add another 18 bear-proof containers to parks.
It was the first significant action ever taken by the city to address bear problems. Yet it still depends on the good will of residents, because this summer also proved that the city's single regulatory tool is politically unenforceable.
In May, Sinnott held a press conference with Captain Bill Miller of the Anchorage Police Department. People who didn't quit storing their trash in view of the street before pickup day could be fined $75 under a half-century-old municipal ordinance, they said. "We're trying to educate our way into compliance with this, but the fine is available if people do not respond," APD spokesman Ron McGee told the Anchorage Daily News.
Sinnott took the announcement seriously. He and Coltrane may have been the only people in Anchorage who did.
In June, they documented 49 violations of the city ordinance in Eagle River and gave the information to police. "I'm hoping APD will cite these folks as we planned," Sinnott emailed the department. "It has been over a month since our press conference and the ordinance has been well publicized in the local newspapers, television news, and several radio stations."
As of last week, APD had not served a single citation.
"Our goal was not necessarily to start citing people," said APD spokesperson Anita Shell. "Our goal was to educate and warn people, and try to reduce the number of critter incidents." If anyone received a warning, it was probably verbal, Shell said - and there is no way to track how many warnings may have been delivered.
Sinnott said he understood that police couldn't afford to patrol streets for garbage violations. What he didn't understand, he said, was why they didn't issue fines when they were already at scenes. "I get a late-night call from APD Dispatch that there's one to four officers on scene at Muldoon, and they're watching a bear and they'd like my assistance," he said. "So I drag myself out of bed and go out there. And there's four cops sitting there and the street has garbage up and down it, and it's not the day of pickup. And I'm like, 'Where's the bear?'
"'Oh, the bear left.'
"'Well, did you cite anybody?'
Sinnott had suggested to the mayor that officers try to cite one person during each shift, time permitting, as a way of sending a message to the public.
"We're just not going to do that," Begich spokesperson Julie Hasquet said in July. "We don't do quotas."
But other gestures don't fill the gap between what residents say they want and what the city is able or willing to do. Alaska Waste, for example, has 40 to 50 bear-resistant "tipper carts" for rent at $5 a month - bear-resistant carts that can be mechanically emptied - and a half-dozen cages to protect garbage bins at $20 a month, said senior sales manager Craig Gales. The company also has 41,000 residential customers, thousands of whom live in neighborhoods where bears are common.
A few years ago, Sinnott and Coltrane devised a plan to encourage trash collectors to place red tags on garbage disturbed by bears. The tags would signal homeowners to be more careful and would help in gathering data about which neighborhoods are most vulnerable. Gales said in an email, "We do have the red tags and our drivers will tag the container if they feel it is necessary." But the wildlife biologists say they've followed drivers who either never tagged cans that obviously were raided by bears, or who said they'd never heard of the program. In any case, it was one more non-starter.
Just as the city was negotiating changes to trash collection times, the state made a change that has puzzled, outraged, and, in a few cases, gratified many residents. Rick Sinnott was removed from bear duty.
A newspaper account in late July quoted Sinnott saying something harsh and characteristically candid after he discovered a pile of rotten fish guts in a roadside ditch on the Hillside ("I'd like to catch the assholes who did it and beat the crap out of them," Sinnott reportedly said). As a result, Fish and Game Commissioner McKie Campbell barred Sinnott from dealing with bears or talking about them until at least next spring. And so, one of the two people in Anchorage with the most insight, experience and ideas about how to help people and bears coexist is muzzled. (His quotes in this article were given before the gag order.)
At the same time, Campbell reduced the state's response to bear calls, leaving Anchorage Police to handle incidents at night and on weekends, when police will respond only to calls involving public safety.
Fish and Game has made it too easy for communities to hand over responsibility, Sinnott said in July, "because we've said, 'Step back, we'll take care of the bears.'" But as the garbage issue grew even more unmanageable over the years, "people keep saying, 'Well, it's the bears, and you're Fish and Game, and you either need to shoot the bears or move them or come out continually and haze them away, because they're bears and that's what you do.' So we've kind of by default fallen into this enforcement thing where we really shouldn't be."
Yet with Fish and Game's role diminished, there's no one really taking their place.
Right now, most bears in Anchorage are preoccupied with berries or fish. That usually changes in late September or October, when bears make a last push to fatten up before hibernating. This year, they may find it easier than usual to roam the streets freely, foraging for garbage. If the past is any guide, many residents will be happy to oblige them.
To solve these problems, Anchorage does not have to begin with an unwieldy block of granite, a dull chisel and some vague idea of what a wheel looks like. Communities all over North America are learning to deal with resurgent populations of urban black bears. Even in Alaska, places such as Talkeetna and the Kenai are working hard - often at the grassroots level - to reduce bear deaths largely caused by careless trash handling. But Juneau presents the most rigorous and far-thinking model of all.
The capital city does differ from Anchorage in a couple of ways. The population is 30,000, not 260,000, and its terrain squeezes neighborhoods into tight clumps between the ocean and the mountains. The Juneau landscape worth studying, though, is political and civic.
After two decades of ineffective measures, Juneau residents finally sickened of seeing 10, 12, or 14 black bears shot in some summers. The catalyst for action was a photograph taken by lifelong resident Pat Costello, who cruised Juneau's streets night after night documenting bears eating garbage. The Juneau Empire published an iconic image: a chubby black bear dashing past the Red Dog Saloon with a McDonald's bag dangling from its mouth. The bear had easily raided a nearby trash can, and the juxtaposition of the animal, the garbage, and the tourist attraction - all of it right downtown - jolted people.
"It really did take Pat Costello's picture to remind people that every night, every night, while you are sleeping, bears are getting into gallons and gallons and gallons of garbage," said Maria Gladziszewski, the special project officer who coordinates urban bear management for the city and borough of Juneau.
It also took another three years, the political will of then-mayor Sally Smith, and an unusually cooperative coalition of the city assembly, Fish and Game, the Juneau Police Department, Arrow Refuse, and an ad-hoc bear committee.
Today, every Dumpster in Juneau has been retrofitted with a bear-resistant lid. Every city trash receptacle is bear-proof. Year-round city ordinances prohibit trashcans on curbs before 4 a.m. on pick-up day. At all other times, garbage must be stored either in bear-resistant containers or in a strong enclosure like a garage. None of this happened overnight, but it happened.
What works in Juneau is enforcement, says Gladziszewski. The police department devotes a full-time community service position to bears and garbage. "They don't chase bears around, they chase people around," she said. "They take a brochure, and if they've already done that, they write a ticket."
The citations carry all the mojo: the first fine is $50, with escalating penalties of $100 and $300.
"It's just like speeding," Gladziszewski said. "You can do all the campaigns you want on how speeding is dangerous and here's the 10 reasons why it's bad. For most of us, the reason we don't speed is we don't want to get a ticket."
The results are clear. In 2002, Juneau police received 1,041 bear calls, and seven bears were killed. In 2004, they received 182 calls, and two bears died. Things remain quiet so far this year. Maybe some people don't report bear intruders to avoid a ticket, says Gladziszewski, but the overall change is obvious.
"It really is remarkable. Three years ago there was nightly marauding by bears in Dumpsters downtown, in West Juneau. It's simply over."
Fish and Game wildlife biologist Neil Barten says the tipping point came when the government accepted that bears also were the city's responsibility, not just the state's. "We made the city in Juneau recognize that they were already involved and didn't know it. When you have the captain of the police force show up to meetings, and the captain is willing to say 'Every time we respond to a bear, that's a time we're not responding to domestic violence,' they listen. So he's crucial." So was Gladziszewski, Barten added.
Nobody pretends Juneau's bear problem is solved perfectly or permanently. The city's next challenge is helping people who live in trailers or houses without garages to obtain bear-resistant tipper carts. The coalition also emphasizes education through the media and through annual visits to classrooms. Every kid in town learns about urban bears.
Somebody will always screw up; some years the bears won't find enough natural food, and they'll be vulnerable to the temptations of available garbage. But what matters is how radically the attitude has changed. Government and residents share responsibility, voluntarily or not. And people are beginning to understand that bears will always move through Juneau - and residents can live with that, even appreciate it - but the animals will stick around only if they find garbage.
"We actually have gained some ground that we're never going to lose back," Barten said.
A wildlife biologist cannot accomplish such changes alone, said Gladziszewski. "There does need to be some political champion to get the political momentum going." But, she added, "It can be done. It really can be."
Lost in Anchorage's staticky conversation about bears is some wonderment, some gratitude that they even live among us.
"Bears are a unique, perhaps defining, characteristic of living in Anchorage," Rick Sinnott once wrote to the mayor. "No other city in the world supports a population of brown bears and few cities have black bears."
It's the presence of bears and other large wild mammals that make Anchorage something more than just another mid-sized metropolis. It's what makes it an Alaskan city. It is not the box stores, the chain restaurants, and the traffic that distinguish us from every other city in the world. It's all those bears living in the hills and valleys near us; it's the animals we don't even see in our midst because they've learned to be as inconspicuous as shadows. "One big brown bear, he cruises among the homeless people and the midnight fishermen," Sinnott said. "He loves fishing for salmon. When someone comes along he sort of fades into the brush and then he fades back."
Some people believe a big city is the last place bears belong, Alaskan or not. This is an old idea of how humans should live, and it suggests we should splinter the domain between people and wildlife based on fear and ignorance.
Considering how often people and bears encounter each other here, it is remarkable how few injuries or deaths have occurred over the years. You could eliminate that possibility altogether, of course.
"What I keep telling people, in order to have no risk from bears, you're going to basically have to shoot all the bears," Sinnott said. "And who wants to live in a world like that?"
Mostly it's the bears that carry the weight of our shared lives. Co-existence remains possible only as long as bears are permitted to pursue their own business in the natural realms we share, as long as they never become food-conditioned, as long as we learn to do our part.
Even so, there will always be inevitable losses: bears shot in genuinely dangerous encounters or eliminated because their lives overlap ours much too closely. And larger threats loom beyond the annual death tallies due to shootings or vehicle collisions. In slices, in wedges, in nibbles, with each new road puncturing a forest and every subdivision chock-a-blocking across a slope or alongside a stream, with all those ball fields and parking lots slabbing the terrain, Anchorage continues to lose bear habitat.
Here again, Anchorage is in danger of fumbling important opportunities to contain this creeping corrosion. Fish and Game and the Anchorage Bear Committee collaborated last year on guidelines for reducing bear conflicts in the city and Chugach State Park. They introduced profound notions about how to make real and lasting changes that would protect bears and people beyond one summer at a time. They sent their zoning ideas to the city hoping they would be incorporated in the current rewrite of the municipal code.
"Like floods, bears are a force of nature," Sinnott wrote in a cover memo. "Building houses in high-quality bear habitat is tantamount to building houses on a floodplain. Like floods, bears will continue to flow from their source in the mountains east of the city into the Anchorage Bowl and other developed areas. The municipality needs planning and zoning that accommodates bears, like floods."
Yet most of those ideas evaporated by the time the current draft appeared of the Title 21 rewrite, the document that sets out how Anchorage will live.
At the heart of all this lies a question as philosophical as it is political. Whose bears are these? Who will take responsibility for them?
The truth is that this is a problem that could be solved person by person, bear by bear.
Some clear examples of why this doesn't happen emerged this summer in an unusual public forum: traffic court. Three times this summer, magistrates heard from folks protesting bear-feeding citations issued by Rick Sinnott. Sinnott produced photographs and described the evidence that a bear, not a dog, ripped into their garbage. The testimony illustrated the difficulties people have in associating their actions with wider consequences.
One man never showed up; he was the guy, Sinnott said, who had insisted, "'Wait a minute! This isn't my garbage! None of this is my garbage! Somebody put it here!'" He didn't know his wife had already admitted it was their garbage, Sinnott said, and that they always stored it in the driveway.
Another man who lives near Abbott Loop said he'd been leaving his garbage in the same spot for 13 years without problems, despite the presence of bears. He felt picked on because everyone in his neighborhood leaves garbage out. The magistrate asked him about putting the cans in a garage. "Well, it would be a hassle," he answered. "I mean, like I say, I've never done it before."
Then Sinnott produced a transcript from a 2002 broadcast on KTUU in which the man's wife had said people's garbage was attracting bears and causing problems for families. "it's getting awfully scary," she said.
Guilty, said the magistrate.
Afterward, the man said his wife now stores their refuse in the garage while he's working on the North Slope. When he comes home, he puts it outside again.
A professional couple living near Muldoon used the same defense most people do when they get a ticket; they complained about being singled out, especially for some "public campaign." The magistrate didn't believe the evidence proved that the garbage in question belonged to the homeowners, however, so he found them not guilty.
It's easy to regard these folks - and all of their brethren - with cynicism, even anger. It's also true that fault should be assigned to those of us who don't speak up.
I just moved to an apartment building 200 feet from the Campbell Creek Greenbelt, and although the city has thoughtfully installed a bear-proof bin at the trail entrance, any hungry bear could walk another 150 feet to find happiness in the gaping maws of our building's two open Dumpsters. Then there's the nice lady who leaves her birdfeeder hanging all summer, and the guy down the way who week after week drags his overflowing trash cans to the road at least 18 or 24 hours before pickup.
I've been too chicken to talk to the landlady, too afraid of being seen as the neighborhood Nosy Parker. That will change.
Many people in this community are willing to do the right thing, not because someone is making them, but because they recognize public safety is their concern, and because they don't want to see more bears killed. Some homeowners' associations in Eagle River fine their members for improper trash handling. Volunteers with the Defenders of Wildlife canvass households in Eaglewood, and willing homeowners pledge to store their garbage properly and take down their birdfeeders in summer. Others aren't reluctant to apply peer pressure when necessary; it's their kids playing outside, after all.
It would be nice to ask Rick Sinnott what he thinks of all these recent developments. Maybe someday, when he's allowed to talk about bears again, Sinnott will thank Mayor Begich for intervening with the garbage companies, for taking a first step to change the way we do things here.
What does it matter that each year we kill bears through willful negligence or benign neglect?
Few urban problems could be solved so directly. The fact that so far we seem incapable of fixing this one implies we've failed on a fundamentally human level. It means we're not interested in rousing ourselves from the creeping stupor that afflicts so much of America these days. It means we're not capable of choosing - maybe even imagining - a future where Anchorage is known as a community that recognizes its immense riches rather than squandering them.
For the moment, it's all right here, within our grasp.
On one fortunate July summer afternoon, I was bicycling along Campbell Airstrip Road when a black head popped over the embankment beside Campbell Creek. "Stop!" I told my husband. "It's a bear."
We skidded to a halt. After a moment, the bear stepped deliberately onto the bike trail and crossed to the road. It was no larger than the bear shot dead this year at Glen Alps. Its coat was shiny and its frame solid. It never looked at us as it crossed the road and loped into the aspens, though we watched from 30 feet away.
That bear did not belong to me, or to any government, or to you. It belonged only to itself. Surely it was still learning how to exist in a world bound by freeways and hemmed by neighborhoods and bountiful with everything that makes a bear's life good - everything, that is, that makes our lives good.
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