14 brown bears were euthanized in Sitka in 2021, the biggest year on record. (Photo provided by Meredith Redick)

The first brown bears of the spring have been spotted in Sitka. Not a moment too soon, the assembly is reviving a bear task force to address increasing conflict between bears and humans within the community.

The new task force will spend six months investigating Sitka’s bear history, reviewing work and suggestions from the last task force that was established in 2005, along with studying bear deterrent efforts in other communities. Assembly member Crystal Duncan, who sponsored the discussion item with Rebecca Himschoot, said the decision came on the heels of Sitka’s worst year for bear killings in the last 30 years.

“We want to prevent that,” Duncan said. “And we know that it needs to start now.”

Last year’s bear activity was unprecedented. Fourteen bears were euthanized in Sitka last year — more than double any other year on record since 1980. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska asked the Assembly to prioritize the community’s bear issue during the government to government meeting this winter. And on March 8, ADF&G wildlife biologist Stephen Bethune told the assembly that the community needs to figure out a way to deal with its garbage problem. 

“If there is a silver bullet, and it won’t solve the problem entirely. But if there was one, one method that is going to significantly impact our issues, it’s bear resistant containers,” he said.

This data, collected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, shows the number of recorded bears euthanized in Sitka by year. Wildlife Biologist Stephen Bethune included this slide in his presentation to the assembly to demonstrate that 2021 was unprecedented, with 14 bears killed. (City of Sitka)

City Administrator John Leach said that whatever the bear working group came up with, there would be a price tag for the city to consider. 

“We talk about bear proof cans, they’re expensive,” Leach said. “We may not be able to do that across the entire community, and may be targeted to higher traffic areas for bears. But there’s a cost to that.”

“And if the community wants it, we need to bear that cost. I don’t mean that…there’s a pun there,” Leach said. “But we need to absorb that cost somehow if we’re not able to find it by means of grant.”

The task force will be comprised of representatives from the ADF&G and the city, the Sitka Tribe, BIHA and the Sitka National Historical Park, among other agencies. 

The city is also seeking two at-large volunteers to join the task force. Find information on how to apply here.