ADF&G biologist Steve Bethune doesn’t refer to these animals as “problem bears.” “Because they’re just bears being bears,” he says. “It’s actually people that are the problem. And the bears are using the intelligence that they’ve been created with, and all their resources, and they have to do the best they can with whatever they can just to survive.” (ADF&G image)

As Sitka’s deadliest bear season in recent memory winds down, the Department of Fish & Game is stepping up outreach to try and prevent a repeat of 2021, when 14 brown bears were killed in the community.

ADF&G biologist Steve Bethune last week (11-18-21) delivered an hour-long presentation on how Sitkans can live with bears.

Steve Bethune is trained in Biology. He thought that meant spending a lot of time outdoors with wildlife. There is some of that, but he also spends a lot of time on a computer, and on a phone, talking to concerned humans.

“I deal with some real extreme attitudes about bears here in town,” he said. “There’s kind of ‘kill them all’ crowd. And there’s the ‘they were here first crowd.’ And I try to get everybody more where I live — more in the center. I can’t kill them. Even if I decided that was the right thing to do, it would be impossible, right? It’s just not not available.”

Bethune spoke to an in-person and online audience in Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall. Just as he can’t kill every bear that enters town, Bethune said he must kill some — as they present a legitimate threat to public safety.

He doesn’t use the term “problem bear,” because he believes bears aren’t the problem.

“Because they’re just bears being bears,” said Bethune. “It’s actually people that are the problem. And the bears are using the intelligence that they’ve been created with, and all their resources, and they have to do the best they can with whatever they can just to survive.”

Full presentation: Living with Sitka’s Brown Bears

Bethune said that bears come into contact with humans because we provide them with a limitless supply of high calorie food. A domestic chicken has about as many calories as a salmon. A greasy pizza box is also rich in calories. Even with 14 bears removed so far this year, he said “the calls keep rolling in.” The exact number of bears in Sitka remains the “million dollar question,” because their sense of smell is legendary — 10 times better than a bloodhound’s, 2500 times better than ours — and they are extremely mobile. Today’s Sitka bear might have been nowhere near yesterday.

“Moving long distances for these bears is really, really common — up to 50 miles a day is not unheard of,” said Bethune. “And we know from radio collar data that they’re excellent swimmers. Even here in town, you know, the bears are using all the little islands and then there’s Middle Island, Kasiana Island, Apple Island. We’ve had a bear over on Japonski Island, and I’m pretty sure they’re not walking across the bridge.”

This mobility is why relocating bears isn’t feasible. Many of the complaints Bethune receives involve his decision to kill a bear, rather than trap it, dart it, and move it to a far off island. Short answer: It doesn’t work.

“Bears have a tremendous homing instinct,” he said. “And over and over and over our radio collar data shows these bears covering tremendous distances, and large bodies of water to get back to where they are removed from.”

Bethune said that a bear that doesn’t make it back to its home range will likely come to harm. He likened it to a non-urbanite like himself being dropped into Times Square completely unprepared.

Although this has been the worst year for urban bear mortality in Sitka in the last 30 years, Bethune believes an answer has emerged recently that can help enormously: inexpensive electric fence kits. He said the department has purchased several at less that $300 that can be loaned to residents while they work on permanent solutions at their homes.

Bears walked past this chicken coop on Cascade Street all summer long. Bethune says electric fences are a relatively inexpensive, but tremendously effective, deterrent for bears. (KCAW/Robert Woolsey)

Bethune told the audience a quote from a fellow biologist, that “ what most people know about bears has more to do with the nature of bear stories than with the nature of bears.” He added that with bears, “we often see what we believe.”

He said the only effective way to eliminate bears from Sitka, was to eliminate the reason they come here.

“It’s unsecured garbage that’s a problem,’ said Bethune. “When I remove a bear, that is treating a symptom and not treating the root cause”

As for when bears will finally head into their dens for the winter, and allow Sitkans to have some peace — not to mention their National Park Trails — Bethune said there wasn’t a precise date. Some sows with cubs might den up in October. For other bears, he said “Thanksgiving is kind of a general standard.”