Members of the city’s Bear Task Force told the Assembly that the pilot program would take place in the neighborhood up Indian River Road. The city would purchase seven 300 gallon containers and outfit them to be bear resistant.

The containers would be located in a centralized area that’s convenient to neighborhood residents. Rather than putting trash in individual trash cans on the curb, residents would take their garbage to that centralized area. The plan is to run the project from April through October.

Here’s why: In 2007, Sitka police received 181 bear calls. That number dipped to 48 in 2008, then shot up to 240 in 2009. Last year, there were 214 bear calls.

“You don’t want to get too carried away when you see the increase in numbers,” said Phil Mooney, wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. “It’s because we’re actually getting a better response from the general public out there. They’re calling and saying ‘We’ve got a bear here that’s not particularly doing anything. You don’t need to send anybody, you don’t need to respond, I just want you to be aware of this here.”

Despite his warning to take the numbers in stride, Mooney says it’s important to act now to better manage trash in the city, and cut down on the number of bears who find themselves feastomg on the all-you-can-eat buffet Sitkans serve up in their trash cans.

“You can’t go after this and make substantial progress if you only deal with it when the bear has already shown up in your yard and gotten into your garbage,” Mooney said. “I know this system is different – a lot different – than what we’ve looked at before, where we looked at individual trash cans to address that problem.”

But there’s a model for it, say the members of the bear task force. The town of Canmore, Alberta has tried the centralized garbage plan. After 300 bear sightings in 1998, the town eliminated curbside garbage collection. There were still bear sightings in 1999, but there wasn’t a single report of bears getting into garbage.

But there were challenges. Residents were leaving large trash items like mattresses and chairs beside the containers, and the containers attracted graffiti and litter. Also, people started throwing more stuff away at the collection points at end of their blocks rather than taking it to the recycling center. And locating the containers wasn’t easy. Residents packed into tense public meetings, worried about the noise of banging lids, possible odors, or increased traffic as people drove in and out to deliver their garbage.

City Public Works Director Michael Harmon agreed that Sitka could share in those challenges if it decides to go after this program. But it also has pros, he said including increased collection – maybe three times a week.

Harmon says the Indian River subdivision was chosen because it gets a lot of bear traffic, and because of its geography.

“It’s pretty isolated in that it sits by itself so you don’t have a lot of intermixing of a densely populated neighborhood around it,” Harmon said, “so it really can be a decent study area to see if we truly made a trash resistant area – how the bears would behave and how effective that would be.”

Assembly members had a few questions, including this one from Thor Christianson: “Has anyone spoken to the folks in this area? Have we had a community meeting or anything like that?”

That’s planned, Harmon says. The city is planning to test some resistant cans on the bears at Fortress of the Bear and then have a meeting to get comments from residents, and make any changes based on those comments.

The Assembly would have to approve the pilot project before anything happens in the Indian River Subdivision, and that would come after those public meetings.

Assembly member Larry Crews wanted to know whether police had issued any tickets under the city’s existing bear ordinance, passed in 2008.

Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt says no tickets have been issued.

“The way the ordinance was written was that we were going to contact people and give them a warning, which is what we did,” Schmitt said. “Whenever we had a call we’d go out, document it, talk to the people and give them a warning, and then give the information over to Fish & Game – take pictures of it. We didn’t have any repeat offenses to the point where we had to issue citations.”

Centralized trash collection is just one in a series of things the Bear Task Force hopes to do to stem the tide of bears coming into town. Other efforts will include education and better enforcement says Task Force member Andrew Thoms, who is also executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.

And, Thoms says, it will be important to look at whether centralized garbage collection is practical in all parts of town.

“There’s probably not one solution for every place in town, and we have to look across the different neighborhoods and different places: What’s going to work best?” Thoms said.

The meeting between the Bear Task Force and the Assembly was informational only. The Assembly took no action on the plan, and will not do so until the task force comes back with the results of its testing at Fortress of the Bear, and the public comments gathered from area residents.
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