Last October, a rare Lake Street bear caused a neighborhood scare. Bears are back in the area this year, but wildlife biologist Steve Bethune hopes they’ll go into hibernation soon. (Photo/Meredith Redick)

Sitkans have seen an uptick in bear activity in recent weeks. Bears that would typically come out late at night and rob trash cans have become bolder about appearing in the daytime, and Sitka National Historical Park has been closed — just to humans — 24/7 until bears head to their dens.

KCAW spoke with ADF&G biologist Steve Bethune to learn how much of this “bear surge” is normal.

Sitka area management biologist Steve Bethune says daily bear calls are typical for this time of year. And there’s a biological explanation.

“This time of year, the bears go into what we call hyperphagia, which is a really intense concentrated feeding effort in order to lay on additional fat stores in preparation for winter hibernation,” he says. “So, it’s right on track as far as our bear reports and number of bears that people are seeing. Happens every year.” 

But here’s something that doesn’t happen every year– there’s been an unusually high amount of bear activity in the Sitka National Historical Park, which prompted the park to close down trails at certain hours over the last couple of months. Bethune attributes that to a couple of factors. 

“There has been a lot of bear activity along the river. Bears have been concentrating on the fish run there, and so a lot of activity,” he says. “And I think the lack of tourists this year–because there has been so much less human presence in the park, the bears have been more comfortable using that on a more regular basis.” 

Bethune says that a poor fish and berry year has led to more bear activity in town. So far this year, none of the bears have behaved aggressively, though at the beginning of October, a man shot at a bear behind his home on Merrill Street. 

“There was a bear that got into a homeowner’s chicken coop there. The homeowner confronted the bear at night and did fire a shot at the bear. He wasn’t sure if he hit it or not,” he says. “Myself and one of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers followed up on that and spent some time searching the area, and we did not find any evidence of a wounded bear.  If the bear was hit, it wasn’t hit very hard.” 

And there has been more nearby bear activity in daylight.  Shortly after 7 in the morning on Oct. 9, Sitka Police responded to the BIHA apartment complex across from the Alaska State Troopers’ academy, where a sow and two cubs had gotten into some trash. Photos on social media showed the cubs sitting on the curb, like school children waiting for the bus. Sitka Police Sergeant Gary Cranford says officers did not see the sow upon arrival, and pushed the cubs out of the area using sirens.

Cranford says law enforcement has used projectiles, like less-lethal ‘rubber bullets,’ to ward off bears this year.

Bethune says that, compared to the rest of Southeast, Sitka has had a moderate bear year so far, and he hopes it stays that way. He asks that Sitkans stay on top of their trash–keep garbage secure, and wait until the morning of garbage pickup to take it to the curb. 

“Hopefully in a month, they’ll all be asleep and it’ll be all over with for the year.” 

Bethune says that the number of calls coming into his office have been steady recently. If it tracks with previous years, that should slow down by next month.