City council takes up ‘the year of the bear’

Over 100 bear complaints made to police in just under six months

With spring right around the corner, thoughts turn to what folks have been thinking about all winter long: bears.

Discussion at the Cordova City Council’s Feb. 6 work session ranged from bear proof dumpster lids to refuse collection to creation of an urban bear plan.

Letters expressing growing frustration over lack of action have prompted probable solutions.

The Refuse Department’s purchase of 65 new bear proof dumpster lids, combined with 15 already owned, means all 75 dumpsters used throughout the city in the summer should be fitted with the new lids by March, said City Manager Alan Lanning.

Bear proof garbage cans are available for purchase at ACE Hardware; their 64 gallon can sells for $219 and their 96 gallon can for $229. However, the 96-gallon cans don’t meet city code and are too large for the current refuse equipment.

A black bear tries to get into a dumpster after recent modifications had been made near the Copper River Seafoods processing plant.
Photo courtesy of Copper River Seafoods

Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks suggested the city provide an incentive for people purchasing their own bear proof garbage cans by discounting their garbage bill for a few months, essentially reimbursing the resident, then returning to normal billing.

Advertisement

The city is looking at the feasibility of changing refuse collection methods around town, wrote Public Works Director Samantha Greenwood in a letter for the work session. “We will include the hot spots bear map from ADF&G, logistics for trucks, employee revenue and the public as we work through ideas.”

During the last season, 15 bears were killed in Cordova; nine by residents and six by government agencies. For the Cordova-Valdez unit, nearly 30 bears were killed last summer, said Charlotte Westing, Prince William Sound area wildlife biologist with the Cordova office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That’s the highest number of bear kills in the two communities since 11 were shot in 2006.

Decisions made on the fate of bears, how to handle public safety situations and response were a collaborative effort of ADF&G, Cordova Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, and occasionally U.S. Forest Service law enforcement.

The fish cleaning station on Orca Cannery Road was closed on Sept. 1, because of bears excessively feeding and searching for fish scraps left on the ground. Closure, however, prevented elders with limited mobility access to a fish cleaning station, as the only other station is located in the harbor, said Matt Piche, Native Village of Eyak Natural Resources Coordinator & Fish Biologist II.

Now the city is working on a right-of-way permit with the Alaska Department of Transportation to move that fish cleaning table to Carcass Point, the pull out just past the city burn pile, on the water side.

The city is also looking into electric fencing at the landfill, which bears frequented last summer.

Westing presented data, educational information and solutions, prompted by numerous incidents around town last summer, during what she referred to as “the year of the bear”.

In 2018, from May 26 through Nov. 20, 101 bear-related phone calls were made to CPD alone, 10 times the normal amount in the six years the CPD call log provided.

“All of these estimates are conservative because nowadays people aren’t communicating with us…,” Westing said.  “They don’t call Fish and Game when they have something that is concerning… They don’t swing by our office. They often just…communicate about their concerns on social media and that’s something we’re all trying to learn to adapt to.”

Damage by a bear done to Kim and Eva Hager’s home on Whitshed Road in Cordova seen on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

In September, a bear persistently attempted to get into Kim and Eva Hager’s home on Whitshed Road, clawing a tear in the screen door, ripping siding off the home, denting the door knob, and leaving slobbery streaks along the windows.

“We’ve had black bears in the past, not a lot of them, but they came over and stood against the door and looked in,” Kim Hager said. “But you know, never had a problem with them…but this bear is different.”

The Hagers said they felt they had done all the right things to avoid bear encounters, ensuring that trash was kept off the porch, and making sure their neighbors’ trash was not out either.

“We were shocked at their lack of response,” Eva Hager said of the city during the height of the bear incidents.

The Hagers also said they called police, state troopers and ADF&G, eventually turning to their tribe for support.

“We met with the homeowners and heard their concerns over the amount of response from officials,” said Kerin Kramer, executive director for Native Village of Eyak. “We are hoping for more conversation about how residents can feel protected from wildlife and can get help from agencies when they need it.”

Kramer said residents don’t know where to turn for help.

Damage by a bear done to Kim and Eva Hager’s home on Whitshed Road in Cordova seen on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

A similar issue was noted by Craig Kuntz who placed 11 bear-related calls to CPD between last June 26 and Oct. 12.  “I don’t know what the answer is…all you guys have hard jobs,” he said. “Charlotte (Westing), troopers, (Mike) Hicks and everybody in between can attest that they heard from me a lot this year.”

Kuntz shared stories of having to haze bears away from his property over the summer, away from his chickens and most importantly, his four small children.

“It was a really scary year, I almost tripped on a bear walking out of my house at six in the morning one time. It was on my porch,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Lanning said that the city is engaging in a methodical process to address bear issues as city finances allow and working in conjunction with other agencies in town.

Westing provided a list of ADF&G recommendations including possible development of an urban bear plan. Councilman David Allison proposed that a committee be assembled to help with that plan.

Westing also suggested developing a better system for handling fish waste, having the city consider related ordinances and shifting some areas of town away from residential pickup entirely.

“There is a chance that this year was just a crazy year and we’re never gonna see anything like it again,” Westing said. “But I think there is an equally likely chance that a whole bunch of really young bears just learned a lesson about Cordova and they learned that there is a lot of food here…”

Westing also cited research data about bear conflicts in urban areas, coming out of Durango, CO.

“The research from Durango shows that there is a likelihood that these bear conflicts in urban areas are going to be increasing because of what we’re observing with temperature changes and how that affects denning and how that affects resource availability and constraints on them…,” she said. “Other bear biologists are predicting that the amount of conflicts that we see are going to get worse because our weather is…continuing to just be strange.”

Westing advised contacting ADF&G with concerns about bear behavior and for more information. For problems regarding safety, she says to contact CPD.

Advertisement