Bears getting into trash is a problem throughout Southeast Alaska. To deal with it locally, the City of Hoonah started distributing free bear-resistant trash bins to residents at the beginning of the month. But most towns in the region can’t afford them.
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In the fall, bears are interested in one main thing: getting fat to survive the winter. They do that by gorging on salmon, grazing on berry bushes, and at times getting into trash bins.
“Almost daily from this time into late November,” said Hoonah’s City Administrator Dennis Gray.
Hoonah is a small community on the northeastern side of Chichagof Island. The island has the world’s densest population of brown bears. Gray says in the fall, bears are a daily problem.
“We have 1000s of brown bears and less than 1000 people,” he said. “Bears have been here for a long time and we have constant conflicts.”
It’s a familiar problem all over the Southeast. Haines killed nearly 30 brown bears in 2020. The following year, Sitka euthanized 14 brown bears. In Ketchikan and Petersburg, black bears are the ones getting into trash, but it’s still a problem every year.
But so far, Hoonah is the only community in Southeast that’s providing bear-resistant trash cans. Gray thinks they’ll be a game changer for the community:
“I’m pretty excited about this,” Gray said.
The bear bins were too expensive for Hoonah until a large grant came their way — $2 million from Norwegian Cruise Lines. The company gave Hoonah the money during COVID. The city used it to purchase 660 bins at $136 a pop. They’re smaller-sized because they must be lifted and dumped by a person since Hoonah doesn’t have a mechanical collection truck.
In Sitka, such bear bins have been cost prohibitive. Sitka created a bear task force, which met about 10 times last year. They recommended that the city and borough invest in bear-resistant cans. But Sitka would need to spend around $1.5 million to replace all its residential bins. It boils down to money for other towns in the region too, who instead rely on laws and citations to encourage residents to keep trash secured.
Stephen Bethune with Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Sitka says brown bears have been getting into local trash bins for many years.
“The bears have keyed in on that and roam the neighborhoods at night looking for cans with trash in them,” he said.
Bethune is one of the people who euthanize Sitka’s problem bears. He says it’s not pleasant and it’s a lot of extra work.
“It’s often in the middle of the night,” said Bethune. “There’s a lot of follow up that happens when you have to kill a bear. We salvage the hides and skulls for our fur auction in Fairbanks every year so a lot of late nights in the warehouse skinning bears.”
The bear bins are kind of like water-resistant clothing. They help for a while.
“There’s no such thing as bear-proof, that’s why we call them bear-resistant,” Bethune said.
And they have proof of this. At a local bear shelter in Sitka—Fortress of the Bear—staff tested out many so-called bear-resistant trash bins. The very best one lasted only 12 minutes. But Bethune says that’s enough.
“I don’t foresee realistically a bear spending 10 minutes on one trash can trying to get into it,” Bethune said. “They usually just knock over the can, it spills open and they grab a bag that falls out and run off with it into the woods. So even a very resistant can is going to not provide that immediate food resource and the bear’s eventually going to learn that coming into town isn’t paying off for him. It’s too big of a risk.”
He said 10 minutes matters. Even five minutes matters.
But bears are more than just a problem. They’re important to the region culturally and economically. Hoonah is a mostly Lingìt community with cultural ties to bears. And City Administrator Dennis Gray says the town has grown its tourist industry, receiving nearly 600,000 visitors a year. Many come to see the brown bears in nearby streams.
“Cruise ship tourism people pay big bucks to go out the road, look at bears,” Gray said. “And so shooting bears is not a great thing to be doing.”
Purchasing bear-resistant trash bins is just one step Hoonah is taking with the grant money. The city also bear-proofed its landfill with concrete blocks. They purchased bear-resistant metal dumpsters and kits for hanging deer safely in the fall. And they’re bringing in a team of Karelian bear dogs from Fairbanks for two weeks to scare the bears away. Gray says if it works, they’ll bring the team back next year.