A black bear crosses Main Street in Cordova. This bear passed right through downtown, largely staying out of sight and unnoticed, and ended up at the east end of Main Street where there was unsecured garbage. On this particular summer, wild berry crops failed, causing bears to range widely looking for food. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website, there are an estimated 100,000 black bears roaming Alaska. Black bears are the smallest North American bear and have an excellent sense of smell. Photo by Milo Burcham

We are in the middle of April, and it’s starting to feel more like spring here in Cordova: the snow is beginning to melt at lower elevations, waterfalls are roaring, and the sun is shining and setting later each day. Dusky Canada geese are arriving, trumpeter swans are heading to their nesting sites, bees are buzzing, and the bears are emerging from hibernation.

Charlotte Westing, a Prince William Sound area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish Game has been with the department for 20 years, and in Cordova for the last ten years. Westing has worked with every Alaskan species except bison and elk in her storied career.

“I love the actual science, the data collection, and the field work. I also love communicating the results of my field work and analyzing the data. I enjoy all parts of the process,” said Westing. There are black and brown bears in Cordova, Westing shared, and both have been known to come in to or close to town. But the specific kind of bear shouldn’t be the focus, Westing says, rather why they appear here in the first place.

“It’s not worth really getting into what species it is, what is really important is why is it there,” said Westing.

Trash has historically been a major bear attractant if not properly disposed of or stored properly. If left out, bears may be more prone to checking it out.

“Once bears get a certain walking rotation on their radar they keep coming back to see if it delivers. That is a life history strategy that has served them well in the wild: ‘I know this place one time had great berries, I come back and check it every time, sometimes it does.’ It’s the same way with trash,” said Westing.

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When it comes to trash concerns, Westing shared how the community can support the city’s efforts to securing trash: Instead of trying to keep your trash outside, use the baler’s generous hours; and if you find the trash lids to be too heavy, find innovative ways to make them work such as pully systems, step stools, prop sticks, etc.

“The main thing is securing attractants. When your neighbors aren’t, talk to them about it, talking about it in a neighborhood approach … it just takes more thoughtfulness about trash,” said Westing. “If your neighborhood would really prefer some kind of other trash option, it doesn’t hurt to communicate that [with the city].”

Another bear attractant historically has been chicken coops. Westing shared she is planning on holding a poultry protection meeting at the beginning of May, and to keep in contact with Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) if interested. The meeting would cover how to properly use an electric fence for coops and poultry, as well as answer any other questions the public may have.

“I’m going to have a get together of people who effectively use electric fences in the town, and for people who are interested in learning about electric fences in town,” said Westing. In alignment with bear conflict prevention, Westing said that communicating about bear concerns in a productive way is paramount.

“The Facebook page about bear watch, I don’t find that constructive at all. I can’t look at it, I don’t have access to Facebook here. I won’t look at it because there’s not productive dialogue for me. The police department isn’t looking at it,” said Westing.

When reporting bear sightings near the public, sharing as many details as possible, like distinguishing characteristics of a bear, helps law enforcement track the situation.

“The thing to do is if you have an immediate public safety risk, call the police department. The police department has 24-hour dispatch, and they can log all those calls. That can help us develop a picture of where we have patterns emerging,” said Westing. Westing also said that calling ADF&G if a bear situation is developing is welcomed.

“Call Fish and Game if you have a bear situation you’re concerned about. Maybe it’s not an imminent public safety thing, but you just want me to know about it. I also communicate all my bear calls to the (police department),” said Westing. “The thing I always emphasize with people, if your life is at risk, if your property is being damaged, we have defense of life and property law to protect you, and that is always there.”

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) warns all hikers, campers and nature lovers recreating in areas where waking bears may be looking for food – which is everywhere around Cordova – that bears are waking up from their long winter naps and are ravenous.

Here are tips from USFS on how to stay safe outside during springtime in the Cordova area:

  • Bear interactions can be avoided by making noise in areas where they cannot easily detect the presence of a human in advance through sight, sound, or smell.
  • Group trips should be taken whenever possible.
  • Keep dogs on a leash, especially on the Tongass. Off-leash dogs may meet up with a bear and bring it back to their human.
  • Never try to outrun a bear. Move slowly backwards away from the bear while speaking calmly.
  • Bear spray should always be carried and kept readily accessible.
  • Use bear-resistant containers to store food and other items with odors while backpacking or camping. Check with the ranger station for the availability of loaner food canisters.
  • Do not process fish at campsites.
  • Use bear-resistant trash cans provided at Forest Service sites.
  • At home, put away garbage cans and pet food for the winter, and bring in your bird feeders.

– Margaret Bauman contributed to this report

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