The owners of this trash can in the Gavan subdivision use bleach in their bags and chain the lid shut, but that wasn’t enough to deter a recent raid by a determined brown bear. Wildlife biologist Steve Bethune says that once a bear has become dependent on garbage for food, that behavior can’t be reversed. The problem is compounded by “hyperphagia” — a bear’s instinct to eat as much as possible before settling into its winter den. He says officials are monitoring several other animals in Sitka who “may have to be removed.” (Photo: Yeidikook’áa Dionne Brady-Howard)

Wildlife officials this week (Tuesday 10-19-2) shot and killed three brown bears who had been frequenting Sitka’s waste transfer station.

That makes nine bears so far that have been destroyed in Sitka this year — and it’s likely that more will be put down before the season is over.

The sow and her two sub-adult cubs were never far from the Jarvis Street Transfer Station, which is tucked behind the city shops not far from Sitka’s Post Office.

It’s not unusual for bears to get into municipal trash anywhere in Alaska, but this family was especially persistent.

“And these three bears in particular were very regular, and they were damaging property at the station,” said Bethune, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. “And putting people who work there and other members of the public at what I believed was a public safety risk. And so we had opportunity to dispatch those bears, and the police were able to do that.”

Bethune worked until 3 a.m. Wednesday morning skinning the bears. Two of the hides were in good condition and will be sold at auction; the third was disposed of.

Bethune says the bears did not seem put off by the activity and equipment at the transfer station. Brown bears are now in “hyperphagia,” and are consuming as much food as they can prior to going into dens for the winter.

These weren’t  the only animals drawn to Sitka’s municipal waste stream.

“The night before I had reports of eight different bears including the three that were dispatched,” said Bethune. “So another sow with triplet cubs and then another single bear had also visited a transfer station the day prior.”

The transfer station is a stone’s throw from Ḵaasda Héen Indian River, which runs under the highway and into Sitka National Historical Park. The trails there were frequently closed during the height of the salmon run to prevent bear-human encounters. But the fishing tapers off just as hyperphagia sets in, and the result is more intense bear activity than in summertime — and in 2021 that activity is proving more intense than usual.

“This year there does seem to be a lot more aggressive behavior than I’ve seen in the past,” Bethune said. “So we’ve had reports of bears breaking garage doors, we’ve had two or three cars broken into, sheds being broken into, siding torn off of houses. We’ve had several incidents of hunters in the field having negative encounters with brown bears after harvesting deer. So definitely, activity seems more ramped up than in previous years.”

Bethune says that he’s working with the transfer station to come up with a plan to install an electric fence around the top loading area. Although the staff there keep the deck clean, a wire can be a relatively inexpensive and effective solution to deter bears. He suggests that homeowners who lack a garage, shed, or other indoor place to store trash could also set up inexpensive electric fence kits, and their cans would be considered secure.

Bethune says that once a bear becomes dependent on garbage as a food source, that behavior won’t change. The nine bears killed so far (including one hit by a car) this season are likely not the last. Bethune says that he and state wildlife troopers and Sitka Police are all in direct communication about additional “bears that we think need to be removed.”