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For residents of Sitka, a bear in your trash can is, at best, a nuisance and at worst a major safety hazard. For the bears, it’s an all-you-can-eat extravaganza that turns city streets into an all-night buffet.
Sitka has an ordinance prohibiting trash from being placed outdoors until the morning of pickup. And some residents have retrofitted their trash cans with latches. The city was considering a test program along the upper part of Cascade Creek Road, using those latches.
Before deciding on whether to do the test program, city officials performed an experiment. They took one of the garbage cans that would be used – a green plastic can, fitted with latches on the lid – and they put it inside the habitat of Chaik and Kilisnoo, the two bears who live at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka. They placed cantaloupe inside the cans, and then watched and waited to see what the bears would do.
Sitka Assembly members watched a video at Tuesday’s regular assembly meeting.
It took about a minute for the bear to pop one of the bolts. And the can itself didn’t fare well. In fact, it was almost flattened. The video goes on, but Assembly members, including Jack Ozment, said they had seen enough. The lights came back on, the video was turned off, and then Ozment had some questions for Matt Dull, the statewide operations manager for Alaska Pacific Environmental Services.
“This can that was in this test … that’s a lighter weight can than the green one we now have in town, isn’t it?” Ozment asked. “It seemed much more flimsy than the ones we have around town.”
The can is slightly weaker than the ones currently in use in Sitka, Dull said, but he added that to a bear, the difference is negligible.
The test program along Cascade Creek – roughly 50 cans in all – would have cost the city $2,000. McAdams had one question for Dull about the project.
“Will this work?” McAdams asked. “Is this $2,000 well spent?”
“No,” Dull said.
“OK, thank you,” McAdams replied.
But not everyone agrees, including my neighbor, Steve Ash. We share a trash can that he’s modified with two latches kept shut using two carabiner-like devices. He’s a member of Sitka’s Bear Working Group, and he’s spearheaded an effort to get latches on trash cans.
“It’s one of the green square cans and I’ve had latches on it for about three years,” Ash said. “It’s had quite a few bear encounters. None have ever been successful in opening the can.”
Like Ozment, Ash doubts the results from the Fortress of the Bear test.
“I was there for that,” Ash said, “and was very disappointed that they chose to use a very flimsy trash can. It was not much more than a cardboard box. The bear put one paw on it and the entire can just collapsed. No latches are going to keep a bear out of something like that.”
Assembly member Larry Crews was among those who said the money for the test along Cascade Creek Road would be better spent on education and enforcement of Sitka’s existing regulations.
“People don’t even close their cans,” Crews said. “I’d like to see more of an enforcement issue put out there. And if one of the departments say they don’t have enough money, well, here’s $2,000 we can put forth to go give tickets. Because they could probably fund themselves after that.”
But Ash says that time has come and gone. The rules have been on the books for a while, and still people leave garbage out on a regular basis, he says. In May, two brown bear cubs were shot and killed by authorities not far from Ash’s house, after they were found near their dead mother. The mother also had been shot. All three bears had been seen getting into trash in the hours prior to their deaths.
“There’s something wrong,” Ash said. “This is not working, and to continue with this methodology makes no sense to me. I really believe we need to discourage bears from coming into town, discourage them from looking for food in trash cans.”
The Assembly’s unanimous vote against conducting the trash can test program kills the measure for now, but Assembly members say they’ll look at other ways to improve enforcement of Sitka’s bear ordinances in the future.
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